Improved seed systems the way to go

Seedlings

Seed systems are a trigger point for inclusive agricultural transformation and are fundamental for farmers.

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What you need to know:

  • The famed green revolutions in Latin America and Asia were triggered by use of better seed.
  • When the Alliance for a Green Revolution was starting its operations in 2006, its premier programme was on seeds.

The importance of seed to mankind dates back many centuries. At harvest, our great grandparents always selected good-looking crops to be considered for seed for the subsequent season. Equally, we see farmers taking their female animals to friends with better males (bulls or cocks) for mating. This careful selection is all aimed at ensuring that the off-spring give better results.

The famed green revolutions in Latin America and Asia were triggered by use of better seed. Seed systems are a trigger point for inclusive agricultural transformation and are fundamental for farmers. Once in place, other systems such as fertiliser and markets inevitably follow.

It is against this backdrop that when the Alliance for a Green Revolution (Agra) was starting its operations in 2006, its premier programme was on seeds. The programme culminated in the setting up of more than 100 homegrown local seed companies in 18 African countries. Currently, these are the key players in their respective countries, producing almost 60 per cent of the seed requirements.

Agra’s Deputy Vice President Program Innovations & Delivery George Bigirwa says any discourse about the seed sector must encompass the entire system, from variety development, release and maintenance; early generation seed production; certified seed production; farmer awareness; marketing and distribution; quality assurance; policy and regulatory reforms to national planning and coordination. In all the countries where Agra operates, these are the seed system elements it addresses.

Agra’s positive impact

To date, 653 scientists have trained at both PhD and master’s level and are currently in-charge of research in their national agricultural systems (Nars). Agra support has trained 152 technicians and established a seed enterprise management training institute (Semi) at the University of Nairobi, where seed companies send their staff for short-term training in seed activities. Nars have developed and released 685 climate-smart and resilient varieties that have contributed to confirmed yield increases from 1.5t/ha to over 3 t/ha.

In order to make the improved seeds available, about 40,000 agro-dealers have been supported to set up selling points closer to farmers, reducing access distances from over 30 kilometres in 2007 to an average of eight kilometres now.

Dr Bigirwa adds that governments have played their part by revising, introducing and repealing policies to make the seed sector more business-friendly. 

Rwanda, which in 2007 had no seed company, now has 23, making it self-sufficient in crops such as maize and beans. Uganda is another example where before seed liberalisation in 2006, the highest amount of improved seed ever produced was 4,500 MT by the then only government seed company. Currently, there are 23 active private seed companies producing close to 30,000 MT, a lot of it sold in DR Congo and South Sudan.

Agra’s positive impact in the seed sub-sector was recently confirmed in an evaluation by an independent international firm – Mathematica – which stated that Agra was successful in increasing the supply of certified seed. Agra convened market actors, built private sector capacity, and supported early generation seed production, thereby sustainably improving certified seed production and delivery. The companies are making profits and expanding to meet demand.

Increasing agricultural productivity

While a lot of improvements have been made in several countries, not all seed-system elements are functioning well. That is the reason a new seed assessment tool (SeedSAT) has been developed which looks at the functionality of all seed system elements in a given country, identifies gaps and makes recommendations for intervention. SeedSAT is one of the premier programmes to be carried out under the Center of Excellence for Seed Systems in Africa (Cessa), housed at Agra.

Agra’s focus remains increasing agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa, Dr Bigirwa says. It is an area where population is constantly increasing while land is shrinking and becoming less productive due to over-cultivation. According to FAO 2019, the average cereal yield in Africa stands at 1.6 t/ha against a world average of 4.1 t/ha. Chad and Niger are at 0.5 t/ha compared to 8.0 t/ha for USA, 8.7 t/ha for Netherlands, 6.3 t/ha for China and 5.3 t/ha for Brazil.

In an attempt to increase yields, farmers in Africa open up more land, resulting in the destruction of ecosystems (forests and wetlands) which is against the common wisdom of increasing yields by using better seeds, improving soil fertility and the right crop management practices. Of the three, the lowest hanging fruit is seed of improved varieties.

The right systems are in place now – resilient and climate varieties exist, there is enough capacity that is sustainable, and accessibility is significantly improved – and farmers should be supported and encouraged to deploy varieties that are early maturing, drought-tolerant but also resistant to several common pests and diseases. 

The writer, a former Editor-in-Chief of Nation Media Group, is now consulting. [email protected]; @TMshindi

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