Counterfeit Seed: The Contrarian’s Take

I’m fascinated by Seed Counterfeiting as a potential answer to the old puzzle of why there hasn’t been a Green Revolution in Africa. As an explanation, it has a lot going for it: simple, parsimonious, straightforward and backed by a mountain of anecdote. Yet, at this point, the evidence really is that: just anecdote. Which leaves us open to an intriguing possibility: what if – and I have my devil’s advocate cap squarely on as I pose this question – it’s all a mirage? A kind of rural legend?

What’s undoubted is that lots and lots of people believe seed counterfeiting is rife in East Africa. Stories are easy to come by of farmers buying seeds that come in Certified Seed bags, planting them, and getting very low germination rates or just  poor harvests.  The conventional wisdom in a whole band of Eastern and Southern Africa stretching from Kenya to Zimbabwe has long attributed this to malicious counterfeiting: fraud, if we’re to call it what it is.

But fraud implies malicious intent, and we really don’t have very good evidence for malicious intent. At least not yet.

An alternative hypothesis is out there, though it doesn’t get very much play: maybe the reason so much seed is of poor quality has to do more with incompetence than fraud.

The seed companies in the region are badly undercapitalized. They underinvest in research and development. They fall prey to all the same dysfunctions that all the other institutions in East Africa also fall prey too. What if the problem has more to do with the way these small seed companies safeguard the integrity of their germplasm and handle quality assurance than with any malicious faking in a back alley somewhere?

One problem is the slow rate of new hybrid variety introductions: in Uganda, you get perhaps 3 new maize varieties introduced per year, and some of the top selling varieties have been around for decades. Maintaining the genetic integrity of the parent lines and the foundation lines isn’t straightforward in an undercapitalized industry. Genetic drift ain’t just a river in Egypt, and it’s not unthinkable that the genetic variability farmers report in some of the certified seed they plant stems from this: real companies selling seed that is no longer hybrid without realizing it.

As for non-germination, plenty of handling issues could account for this. Seed is finicky: it needs to be stored right and kept right to stay viable. In the West, seed is kept in cold storage along the distribution chain. How many cold storage facilities for seed have you seen in Africa?

I’ve spoken to thoughtful people who take these concerns seriously, to the point of doubting whether counterfeiting is a significant part of the problem at all. It’s a minority view, but one that injects a needed measure of skepticism. In the end, the prevalence of the belief that malice is to blame for poor seed performance may turn out to tell us more about the absence of social capital and the generalized distrust in market exchange than about the prevalence of malicious counterfeiting.

What’s shocking is that research hasn’t put this question to bed. At least not yet. IFPRI has a study out in the field now in Uganda, for USAID, that should put this question to rest at least in that country. A World Bank study has just been commissioned that ought to be able to answer the question in Kenya, too.

These studies can’t come too soon. I do hope they’re conducted with a genuinely open mind to this possibility.

Because I sure think malicious counterfeiting is a major bar to agricultural productivity growth in East Africa. But that’s not good enough. I want to know.

Some Straight Talk from Feed the Future’s Andrew McKim

In an enormously candid and hard-hitting interview in yesterday’s Sunrise, Feed the Future’s Uganda coordinator Andrew McKim let it rip with regard to Uganda’s failing agricultural policy framework:

McKim blamed the Ugandan government’s failure to crack down on counterfeit seed as a major roadblock that frustrates farmers as well as seed companies from investing in the sector.

“Seeds is one of the most important concerns for farmers.”McKim adds: “But counterfeit seed are widespread and it’s heart-breaking for a farmer to prepare his land and invest in [counterfeit] seed. Seeds are high priority for farmers and the private sector.”

Experts argue that improved seeds are a major factor influencing total agricultural output. In Uganda however, according to McKim, only 6% of farmers use improved seeds, something that ensures farmers get limited output.

A year ago, when I started writing about Seed Counterfeiting in Uganda, it was a fringe-of-the-fringe topic. Now, high ranking USAID officials are putting it at the center of their message to the Ugandan government. This is enormously encouraging from my point of view. His little rant made me happier than anything about seed ought to!