One simple reform Africa needs right now

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?

18 thoughts on “One simple reform Africa needs right now”

  1. How does this work in South America? I mean, are countries in South America as though with the seed trade?

    I guess my real question is whether or not South Americas suffer the same problems that Africa suffers?

    BTW… I really like your blog. It gives an untraditional perspective (and an useful one) in regards to development.

  2. You get more for less seems to be the South African lesson.

    One of the reason, perhaps, for the closed and tedious registration of seed is history. Once there was only opv. Then along came hybrids. They were developed by the government research stations and hence they wanted to block competition. It was only later that they became private enterprises. Government can put many things in the way of private enterprises to ensure that the home grown companies succeed. It was a form of protectionism.

    Another is lots of things are blocked unless they are developed in the place. So you can get your seed in a country only if you open an office and grow it in the said country. Importing is not allowed. The jobs, FDI, cash are all wanted directly in the country. In the example of Portugal it would be you can’t export that to Spain but if you grow it in Spain that is fine. Again this is protectionism.

    But it also looks like a classic avenue for the brown envelope. Keep blocking and delaying so that someone pays up. And if they don’t pay up but walk off then who cares. Nothing is allowed in, even if it is a good product beneficial -massively beneficial-to the famer and the whole nation. If you don’t pay up you won’t get in or very slowly.

    When the man from Peru arrived by train
    he met the government man about the grain
    there is man on the plains from Bahrain
    who got the people a lot of grain
    but you know it is the wrong sort of grain.
    When are you going to the plains
    to arrest the man from Bahrain.

    The government man arrived on the train
    shouting where is the man from Bahrain
    who got you the wrong sort of grain
    wow!, look at all of that grain
    where is the man from Bahrain
    they said, he got an earlier train.

  3. Excellent piece! I can understand how no single African country will trust the guys next door to do seed certification for them, but I can’t see why ten or so countries couldn’t fund a single institute whose results are valid across borders.

    And, what IS the corresponding situation in Latin America?

  4. If you read the entry on Borlaug, in Wikipedia, then you will see that one of the major hindrances to the green revolution in Africa was the environmentalist movement. There were other things too but Borlaug is the man from Bahrain and the environmentalist movement is the man the from Peru. It was a shameless hunting of benefits from a continent by a movement who profess to be friends of the poor.

    Africa was the battleground of colonialism in the Scramble for Africa. It was the battleground of high tech seed, etc., at the time of Borlaug. In light of the warnings on global warming it would seem that more high tech is needed not less and I am afraid it will again, to its great disadvantage, be the battleground of more high tech or more starvation.

    Bill Gates is at the front of a great initiative to restart the green revolution in Africa. It would help if he could find a modern-day Borlaug to champion the cause.

  5. \begin long, potentially incoherent comment

    While I wholeheartedly agree that MUCH more attention should be paid to other bottlenecks than the development of new seeds, I also understand why countries would be weary of recognizing others’ certificates. This could be both out of genuine worry that other countries’ seed certification is more corrupt, or more sinisterly (is that a word?) because of illicit rent-seeking (if the corruption happens elsewhere, then what’s in it for me?).

    As an above commenter mentions, a single institute, or a standardized protocol for seed certification does seem like something that would be worth investing in — does Gates do institutions?

    Another bottleneck lies in the distribution of improved varieties to villages. Small local agrodealers, from whom the farmers I am currently talking to buy all their seeds (if they buy seeds at all), don’t usually stock very many varieties. And they tend to stock the ones that farmers know, or the ones that they can take a bigger cut from, or the ones that the wholesaler happened to have when they were buying their stock.

    Then, I think you are amiss to ignore counterfeiting (and its cousin, poor information) here. I think the two issues interact in important ways here: More seeds may have at best a marginal impact in a setting where farmers have a hard time keeping track of (and trusting) the existing varieties. In fact, if thirty new seeds arrived on the market in Kenya tomorrow, *many* farmers would find it very hard to gamble on these new varieties since they don’t know if they will work for them and/or they don’t know if they can trust them. Experimentation with a new seed is costly for any farmer, but exponentially more so if you can’t trust its source.

    I actually think there could be a case for testing new varieties against what exists on the market (both in terms of mean yields and variance of the yield distribution — Kenya, I believe, tests mean yields of new varieties against a benchmark) and only allowing new seeds on the market if they constitute improvements over existing varieties. Much like what is done for new medications in Europe. In a world where information travels easily, this would obviously be suboptimal, but if experimentation by farmers is very costly/risky, smallholder welfare may not strictly increase in the number of available seeds.

    And honestly some testing is truly crucial here — I have heard anecdotes in which some companies get warnings if their seeds’ germination rates are just below ninety-some percent, while others’ germinate at abysmally low rates and everyone stands around laughing… because of who runs that seed company. What is the point for poor farmers if the seeds are ‘genuine’ in terms of their genetic material but only half of them actually grow?

    \ok I’m done

    1. I take all of that on board. But there’s a key element missing here: competition.

      The real problem with the current, heavily protected seed market is that it seems to shortcircuit any kind of competitive dynamic. At least in Uganda, firms just aren’t responding to problems in the way you’d expect a competitive firm to behave: it really wouldn’t be hard to introduce smaller bags with tamper-proofing elements to prevent fake seed. If bigger/more tech-savvy firms were in this market, that’s how you’d expect them to behave. But incumbent firms don’t have the marketing or technological capacities (or the financial incentives) to respond this way. So they don’t. So the market sucks.

      The point of opening up seed markets isn’t just flooding local markets with dozens of new seed varieties, it’s introducing the kind of competitive dynamic that pushes Seed Cos to go all out to serve their customers because that’s how you make money. At some point, you have to accept that the thing that’s going to ensure that the right seed into the right client’s hand isn’t a government inspection, it’s a seed company’s commercial interest in maximizing a client’s yield so that client will go out and tell all his neighbours how great that seed was so they’ll all buy it the following year. You dig?

    2. In principle, of course I agree that competition would be good — I am an economist after all (and of course gvt. regulation is less useful if the government is really corrupt).

      For example, I’ve been told that Kenya Seed for many years didn’t really bother developing seeds for the millions of mid- to low-altitude farmers in the western parts of the country since they didn’t believe that there would be enough demand to justify it. It took private actors to move in, and KS (and others) followed suit. So ok competition is good.

      “At some point, you have to accept that the thing that’s going to ensure that the right seed into the right client’s hand isn’t a government inspection, it’s a seed company’s commercial interest in maximizing a client’s yield so that client will go out and tell all his neighbours how great that seed was so they’ll all buy it the following year.”

      At some point, yes. Still, I wonder (and I am not sure of the answer) whether there is a threshold level of information-costliness above which requiring a proof of superiority to current products could make sense.

      Also (shameless plug ahead), some important things to know if we want to rely on the farmer-telling-her-neighbors “how great that seed was so they’ll all buy it the following year” mechanism: the extent to which farmers (a) talk about this stuff, and (b) believe that what works for their neighbor will work for them and (c) ultimately respond and adopt. Just so happens I am collecting data in Western Kenya on that right now 😉

    3. Is the unhappy-face because I am research-spamming you, or because you can’t wait to know more?
      Besides, you missed an important fact here: I am a grad student. I don’t get paid.

  6. Nice article. Like Emilia, I research seed systems. It is good to see seed issues brought into more general development discussions. You are absolutely correct that the governance of seed is poor, and I share your axiom that farmers should have choices, and that markets can help here. However, I do take issue with seed law harmonisation being the #1 bottleneck

    Firstly: there have been several sub-regional attempts to harmonise seed laws and seed testing regulations, to allow released varieties to cross borders without additional testing – e.g. the Swiss have sponsored this for SADCC, ASARECA has tried the same for E and C Africa. National systems have dragged their feet on this, though. My own (boring?) view why reforms are slow is protectionism, but oriented towards farmers rather than national sectors. For instance, governments worried about counterfeit seeds (as another post mentions for Uganda) draft conservative and punitive seed laws, which indirectly restrict any expansion of choice. Equally, some civil society groups see harmonisation as sinister: opening the door for trans-national and GM crop expansion. Both these extremes slightly patronise farmers’ ability to choose, and evaluate their own risks.

    Secondly: harmonisation would probably have greatest impact for the crop where there is already significant private-sector presence – maize. Period. Many other crops fall largely outside of the commercial sphere, like grain legumes, and harmonisation may do little to change that. These crops have features (self-pollination, in some cases localised demand) that limit private investment – even if they offer major benefits, like nutrition.

    Thirdly, Donors like Gates, AGRA and USAID love agro-input shops, but they are, frankly, a wide-show. My own research (n=10 000) shows that commercial outlets supply about 5% of all seed planted across 6 countries (DRC, Kenya, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Sudan). Where do these farmers get seed? More than half of what they plant, across many crops, comes from LOCAL MARKETS. These local markets get little attention – and no donor funding – but are especially important to poorer farmers, women, and for accessing legumes. These markets are ‘old-school’, and outwardly may be ‘boring’, but they could be real drivers of innovation and farmer resilience.

    This leads to my final point. Francisco and Emilia are right to identify market incentives and distribution (of seed + information) as key issues. the trick is how to link them. There ARE models for doing this – e.g. small seed packets, costing the same as a cup of tea, allow farmers to try out new varieties at little risk. using small packets has developed new markets and increased farmers’ access to new materials – and pushed commercial seed companies to think about clients in new ways.

    There is a community starting to gel which focuses on these issues. If I may be so brash, please do check out , (and before Francisco ticks me off, this portal is not about talk, but about SOLUTIONS!) 🙂

  7. A very successful method of distribution, at least here, is the government scheme. Seed is sent to the rural areas throughout the country to the common distribution point – used by ngos and everyone else. The people go and collect their packet of seed, usually 10kg. The seed is hybrid and free. People are very keen to get it. Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia all do these sort of schemes which gets seed well distributed throughout these nations.
    The problem with this sort of scheme is that it closes out the commercial operation. If a person gets free seed then the rural shops have little incentive to bring it from town for sale. The demand is low. It is the same problem with maize and mealie meal. If an ngo sits in a community for months feeding people with free food then the shops can’t sell and the surplus producers can’t sell either.
    Small packets are on the market here. One seed house sells a tub that is less than 1kg. But others sell 2kg as the smallest package. There is one seed house that sells not by weight but by kernels and it has 5000 kernels as its smallest bag. The price for the 2kg is about $5.00. It is enough to plant 1 10th of an hectare at standard spacing of 30 by 90.
    I think SADC has a more advanced seed system than the rest of Africa but I may be wrong. I think the reasons are historical. SADC, because of colonialism, had larger commercial farm operations. They originally planted the traditional seed but when the research stations produced the hybrids they saw the benefits and moved to hybrid seed. The small holders followed if they could. They now have preferred hybrids. By this is meant that they know which hybrids they prefer for their areas and soils. Also, where traditional seed is planted, there are preferred growers. A man here grows traditional seed in addition to hybrid and his traditional seed is much sought after. It is legendary. If you buy food from him for distribution you know you are also buying seed of good quality that can be planted also. It is large seeded, multi cobbing, multi-coloured, red, purple, yellow though predominantly white. In hybrid terms it would be called medium maturity.

  8. Thanks, AM:
    “A very successful method of distribution, at least here, is the government [free] scheme. …The problem with this sort of scheme is that it closes out the commercial operation”

    Very true, and something we’ve seen in Zimbabwe, in particular. But don’t just take my word on it!
    Mason and Ricker-Gilbert (2013). “Disrupting demand for commercial seed: Input subsidies in Malawi and Zambia.” World Development 45: 75-91.

    Free distribution may be politically popular, but beware hidden costs!

    When I mentioned small packets, I meant 0.1 or 0.05 kg for beans – so not $5, but closer to $0.20 or even $0.10! It needs to be really cheap for the poorest farmers to say “I’ll give that a try – why not?”

    And I should’ve stressed in my earlier post, that the work on seed systems is joint with Louise Sperling, at CRS!

  9. Took me a while to work out smcguiredev is Shawn McGuire; hence my confusion. Never seen a packet that small. But I can see what you are trying to do: testing by giving small enough packets to plant a line of beans is a good idea. But I don’t know how successful this will be. Anyone one who doesn’t have 2 rands won’t do much ploughing anyway far less testing. But don’t make it more expensive than the price of beans in the shops or market because then it won’t sell either. 500g sugar beans costs about $1.20. Some people buy them and plant some of them and eat the rest. Also, how would you market it.

    I looked at your site and the assessment paper on Zimbabwe. Both are excellent. I thought that you could introduce the blog element on the site. First guest post could be to the man from Caracas but that is just my suggestion. Blogs sort of get things wider known.

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