How can it be that 87% of Ugandan farmers still don’t use improved Seed?

It’s one of the enduring puzzles of the development world: the key technology that could quickly bring most of the world’s poorest people out of poverty is long established, well understood, readily available…and mostly unused.

Today, in peaceful, fertile Uganda, 87% of smallholder farmers still use saved grain as seed, a technology unchanged in 12,000 years that guarantees miserable yields and plenty of hunger. How can we possibly account for the fact that this still goes on, today, in 2014?

The tendency in the aid world is to try to answer this question in a nice, sterile, politics-free safe-zone. We’ll talk about access to finance. We’ll dream up cool little mobile platforms to allow farmers to buy seed on layaway. We’ll fund research and improve breeding methods. We might even capitalize some Seed companies.

What most of us won’t do is wade waist-deep into the institutional/regulatory morass behind any given African country’s seed industry. Heaven forbid!

Which is what makes this evaluation paper by James Joughin for the World Bank so valuable. Joughin, an agricultural economist, actually worked at Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture for over three years, so he’s plenty well acquainted with the muck. And so, he jumps right in.

Here, for those of you who have been itching to know, is how the Ugandan Seed Certification System’s key institutions work (or, rather, don’t work):

i. The Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries (MAAIF)

It consists of the ministry headquarters and seven semi-autonomous agencies… A core functional analysis in 2001 made clear the dysfunctional nature of the ministry and proposed a new structure. It has not been implemented, largely because of resistance within the ministry. The result is that a structure which was judged inappropriately configured in 2002 is still in place now.

(ii) The Crop Protection Department

Under the Directorate of Crop Resources, the Crop Protection Department is in charge of all matters related to plant health. It manages the Phytosanitary and Quarantine Service and the National Seed Certification Service (NSCS)… The department is underfunded and chronically weak. It claims that staff need training in all areas of their responsibility, even though most have attended numerous (donor-funded) training courses already.

(iii) The National Seed Certification Service

The NSCS was established by the Agricultural Seed and Plant Statute, 1994, although it did not become operational until 2001. It is mandated to play a key role in seed quality assurance including licensure of seed dealers, field crop inspection, sampling and laboratory testing, official certification, and the sealing of seed bags. It is also responsible for testing varieties for distinctiveness, uniformity, and stability (DUS) and for value for cultivation and use (VCU). The NSCS develops rules and regulations for the seed industry and is supposed to monitor and ensure compliance.

The NSCS has received years of support but has never managed to undertake even a fraction of its mandate. For at least 10 years, there have been regular calls to make the NSCS semi-autonomous (Ferris and Ojok 2006), following the precedent for cotton, coffee, and dairy certifiers, and even the NAADS. Semi-autonomy for the NSCS is now MAAIF policy…and NSCS management say they support this change. But nothing has happened. Others have called for the NSCS to delegate tasks to local government or to accredit the Uganda Seed Traders Association or private companies to inspect seed fields and test seed. The NSCS is clearly reluctant to make such changes.

Various hypotheses are put forward as the driver of the NSCS’ foot-dragging. They often concern the various sources of rent (import licenses; payments for lax inspection or not inspecting at all; refusal to inspect without “facilitation” by the client; seed companies paying for certification, and so on) although nothing is on record about such actions. But why does the NSCS license companies that cannot produce decent seed? And why does it not inspect them? Why does it look the other way when it knows companies are not following best practices, when it knows companies are handling low-quality product, and when it knows fakes are present in the market? The NSCS has a complement of eight staff members and complains about lack of resources.

You get the picture: the bureaucratic system that Seed Companies have to navigate to bring new improved seed to market legally is a huge, malodorous, energy-sapping mess. NSCS manages a kind of trifecta: delaying the introduction of new varieties, penalizing companies that play by the rules and creating an enabling environment for Fake Seed.

If this plainly dysfunctional regulatory system hasn’t been reformed, it’s not for lack of ideas, or for lack of calls for reform. Joughin details the two-dozen studies commission by just about everyone from the ministry itself to multilaterals to every conceivable donor partner over the last fifteen years. He luxuriates over weekness of the reform effort. He never quite throws up up his hands and declares that this crazy, dysfunctional bureaucracy is immune to reform, but you can tell he wants to.

When I first looked at the paper, I thought it was a case study in applied micro-Acemoglu-and-Robinsonomics.  But on second reading, I have my doubts.

Because it’s not immediately evident how Uganda’s byzantine Seed Certification process benefits the Ugandan Ruling Elite. And it’s not immediately clear how simplifying it would threaten that elite, either. There’s some suggestion that some unscrupulous people within some of the Seed companies might prefer not to be too-closely supervised, but if anything the bigger, more powerful Seed companies would appear to have a powerful interest in protecting their brand from crooks and counterfeiters.

In fact, as I thought about it, I think I’ve seen a much better description of the kind of institutional inertia Joughin describes, not in any kind of academic paper, but on The Wire. The same type of ingrained bureaucratic guerrilla obstructionism that keeps the Baltimore Police Department (not-)working looks to be very much in play here.

Just like the war on drugs isn’t called off because its biggest victims are also the most powerless people in society, Uganda doesn’t take decisive steps to make improved Seed available to poor farmers simply because their problems carry no political weight, while the handful of people who would suffer from reform are ideally placed to sabotage it.

In a way, Joughin more or less gives the game away on page 29, writing “The reality is that NSCS staff know that if the institution was granted autonomy, they would all be sacked.”

Quite.

8 thoughts on “How can it be that 87% of Ugandan farmers still don’t use improved Seed?”

  1. The other day you posted a video of a certain Banerjee, lecturing in Peru. I think he said in his lecture that, in a survey, most very poor farmers in Sri Lanka and in Ghana, when asked about their long term aspirations, said they’d really really like to have a government job. Isn’t that the main reason for the bureaucracy?

  2. This is a great post, and spot on. I look forward to reading Joughin’s paper.

    I visited NSCS in 2012, and would guess that bureaucracy, and a lack of incentives at any level to be more effective, are both factors. Nor does the promise of continued donor funding create any reason to change.

    Just how bad is it? A recent USAID study added up all the steps to license a seed dealer in Uganda, as well as to register a new hybrid maize variety. Registering a new variety takes some 2.5 years and 500% of Uganda’s GDP per capita, the most costly among 5 countries. It would be interesting to correlate these costs against indicators such as the % farmers with access to improved seed.

    http://eatproject.org/docs/USAID-EAT%20AGRI%20Pilot%20Report.pdf

  3. I visited NSCS in 2012, and would guess that bureaucracy, and a lack of incentives at any level to be more effective, are both factors. Nor does the promise of continued donor funding create any reason to change.

    Just how bad is it? A recent study added up all the steps to license a seed dealer in Uganda, as well as to register a new hybrid maize variety. Registering a new variety takes some 2.5 years and 500% of Uganda’s GDP per capita, the most costly among 5 countries. It would be interesting to correlate these costs against indicators such as the % farmers with access to improved seed.

    http://eatproject.org/docs/USAID-EAT%20AGRI%20Pilot%20Report.pdf

  4. I take issue with your statement that, “saved grain as seed, a technology unchanged in 12,000 years… guarantees miserable yields and plenty of hunger.” I work with a small scale farm in Uganda. I agree completely that the bureaucracy is a nightmare and that finding good seed in Uganda is difficult, because of the fake varieties that are out there. Rather than encouraging dependence on GMO seeds for higher yields, we encourage farmers to save their own seeds and replant them. We have had great success doing this. The issue is not always with the seeds that are being planted, but more often with the methods of planting. I find it interesting that so many people are talking about the types of seeds that people use, yet nobody is talking about the changes in farming that have happened in America over the last 50 years, like zero-tillage for example. Seeds alone will not solve the problem of inefficient and unproductive farming in Uganda or anywhere else. The issue is much more complicated than that.

    1. GAHH!!!!

      What hope is there when even the folk out in the field don’t know the difference between Hybrids and GMOs!!!

      Oh despair…

      You’re absolutely right about practices. What you do – and what inputs *other* than seed you use – makes a huge difference. But Hybrids ARE NOT GMOs!!! And there is zero chance that even the best farming practice can come close to matching the yields you get from an adapted hybrid.

  5. Thanks for drawing attention to this evaluation and for the interpretation of the poor performance of the seed system that is free from technocratic “best practice” talk.

    I do take issue with the accuracy of your headline (which is what prompted me to read the evaluation!). The evaluation does not say that 87% of Ugandan farmers don’t use improved seed, but that 87% of the planted seed in the country is from the informal seed system. That presumably includes farmers that buy improved seed in bulk and sell on to their neighbours, and “farmers and farmers’ groups growing seed (improved or otherwise) for sale through informal channels” p.11.

    I don’t want to split hairs as this does not undermine the central argument you are making. But I suspect that the actual number for % share of improved varieties, particularly for maize (the photo in the background for this story creates that association with maize), is much higher than 13%. A 2006 estimate based on seed sales put it at 54% improved varieties (http://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/pdf/10.1596/1813-9450-5659 table on p.30) when you account for saving seed. If, however, you’re only interested in hybrid seed (rather than improved open-pollinated varieties) then the number you cite is much closer to the mark.

    The CGIAR recently spent a good amount of time and effort to compile the best available data for adoption of improved varieties across sub-Saharan Africa here: http://www.asti.cgiar.org/diiva
    The data aren’t perfect but the headline estimate of the rate of adoption of improved varieties across crops and countries in 2010 was around 35% in the aggregate. This is steady (boring?) progress, up from 22% when data were last pulled together in 1998. As I said, none of this undermines the argument you are making about the dysfunction in the seed system.

  6. Types of seed maize:

    1. GMO from retailer or by donor but a seed company product
    2. Seed hybrid from retailer or by donor but a seed company hybrid
    3. Seed opv from retailer or by donor but a seed company product
    4. Farmer’s own opv grown by himself and kept for generations
    5. Food aid recycled seed as opposed to all of above. Who knows where it comes from and what it is.

    Percentage used of each in Uganda?

    Worth noting that one of the best farmers here uses his own type 4. 6 acres looking at 10 mt this year which is pretty good for rain fed and semi-arid. Doesn’t do CF. Oxen based ploughing. Some of the CF get equivalent of 4mt per hectare. Some get 12mt or so I was told. But that must have commercial levels of inputs.

    What is the history of availability of hybrids in Uganda. Probably very poor and only recently available so learning process not yet observed by the sowing of hybrids on commercial farms.

    SADC has always had commercial farms which developed a sophisticated seed industry. Initially it was for the farms but the indigenous saw it and started planting it also. Farmer’s own OPV declined as a result. Some still plant a little so that next year they have something to plant if the hybrids are not given out or available.

    10kg hybrid seed costs $23. How much in Uganda. Is it expensive. So small take up.

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