The story of seed is the story of Africa’s development woes. While the aid world concentrates on one narrow slice of the Seed conundrum – new variant development – the bottlenecks keeping farmers from using the best seed take on many more forms than that.
Easily the most boring bottleneck (and as far as this blog is concerned, that’s high praise) arises from the impossibly slow and bureaucratic seed certification standards 53 out of 54 African countries impose. Add to that the fact that African countries refuse to recognize their neighbours’ seed certifications and you end up with a system where cross-border trade in improved seed is nearly impossible and the introduction of new adapted seed varieties is exasperatingly slow.
Solving this problem would be easy. Costless. It would require no additional capabilities. Hell, it would require fewer capabilities than the current system. All it would take is for governments to announce they will henceforth recognize seed licenses issued by their neighbours. That simple change could completely change the dynamics of the seed sector, bringing in more competition, more investment, more choice and many, many more varieties into the market.
Think of it like this: if a company produces a new seed variety and gets it licensed in, say, Portugal, that new variety is automatically legal for sale in the whole of the E.U. Farmers in Poland can buy it, farmers in Italy can buy it, farmers in Sweden can buy it.
This is a good thing. Portugal’s market is small, but the European market is huge, and competition enormously tough. Lots of seed companies are interested in participating, and one result is that farmers in Europe get a huge catalogue of seeds to choose from, with different varieties minutely adapted to the specific agro-ecological, climate and pest profiles they face.
But in Africa, despite the crazy alphabet soup proliferation of notional Free Trade Areas, the reality is that virtually no country accepts its neighbors’ Seed Certification standards.
So there is no African Seed Certification system, there are 54 of them; so there is no African Seed Market, there are 54 of them. The slow, grinding, costly business of getting new seed varieties tested and certified has to be repeated, in principle, fifty-four times if a company wants to sell a given seed variety across the whole continent.
How burdensome is this?
Presently, all governments in sub-Saharan Africa except South Africa control the introduction of new varieties of seed for major and minor field crops through official tests to evaluate the variety’s performance and to describe its characteristics […] Test procedures vary from country to country but normally involve a series of “value for cultivation and use” (VCU) and “distinctiveness, uniformity, and stability” (DUS) tests carried out by the national seed authority in which data needed to measure different traits are collected in various locations around the country. Developing a variety can easily take plant breeders seven to ten years or more and, with few exceptions, registration trials take a minimum of two years but often require much longer […] In Kenya and Malawi, some registration tests have lasted for six and seven years respectively (Setimela et al., 2009).
And that’s just the beginning of the Kafkaesque nightmare that is seed certification in Africa. Take this jaw-dropping nugget from the same paper by John Keyser for the World Bank:
In countries such as Angola, Benin, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Uganda, guidelines for appraisal of DUS and VCU data have not been published so are prone to unannounced changes and different interpretations.
Did you catch that? You have to spend years and years and thousands of dollars on the DUS and VCU tests that will eventually determine if your new seed variety is allowed for sale, but you don’t even know ahead of time precisely which standards your variety is going to be held to! And even if it goes well somehow in Angola, if you want to sell the same seed in Mozambique you have to gear up to do the whole thing over again…
Keyser’s paper goes into the weeds of why African seed certification is certifiably FUBAR and cross-border seed trade basically impossible.
But the upshot of all the red tape is that farmers in Africa, who need adapted variety with the kind of urgency your average subsidy-cuddled Audi-driving French farmer couldn’t even begin to imagine, usually face a desperately reduced set of certified seed to plant, a good portion of which ends up being fake.
Here’s Keyser again:
As a result of such requirements, many seed companies say they only bother to register a few varieties in each country that are generally suited for each market even though other seeds in their portfolio may be even better adapted to certain locations and/or offer better value for some end users. The cost and time taken for seed registration, therefore, is not only of direct financial importance to the seed companies, but can also have a major impact on agriculture production and the time farmers must wait to access to new and improved technologies.
One study Keyser cites shows that, on average, just 0.62 new seed varieties are released in the average African country each year across eight major food crops. Meanwhile over the 2000-2010 period in South Africa “farmers gained access to a median of 45 new varieties of maize per year, 10 new varieties of beans per year, and six to eight new varieties per year each of potatoes, sorghum, sunflower, and wheat.” Needless to say, South Africa is the one country that refrains from shooting itself on the foot with all this senseless VCU and DUS testing.
Notice how this cuts directly against the prevailing narrative on state capability. South Africa doesn’t outperform the rest of the region because it does more, it outperforms the rest of the region because it does less. Less needless testing and less regulating and less encumbering and less standing in the way.
For reasons that nobody’s really explained yet, the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa refuses to follow suit. One outcome of that is that the big old mean seed transnationals – y’know, the ones everyone loves to hate – largely don’t trade in much of Africa. The market is too fragmented, and each of the national markets is too small and the volumes just aren’t attractive and the whole thing isn’t worth the bureaucratic hassle. So the private players with the most scientific/marekting/logistics/financial muscle stay out, and leave the field to small-time local players who can’t even figure out how to make a tamper proof seed bag.
All the while, development partners keep funding guys in lab-coats to sit around and develop new seed varieties.
Is it really bad form to suggest that maybe, just possibly, lab-based plant-breeding is not the most relevant bottleneck here? That just possibly there’s something very strange going on with the political economy of countries bent of throwing up this many bureaucratic hurdles in the way of a tried-and-tested technology they desperately need to achieve food security? That the debate on Seed in the aid world isn’t so much wrong as focused on the wrong questions?
And do you see why I think the Story of Seed is the Story of Africa?