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.

15 thoughts on “Counterfeit Seed: The Contrarian’s Take”

  1. Hi, boring: It is also the case that maize is very sensitive to local conditions. Thus, a variety that works great in location A will not necessarily work at all in nearby location B due to microclimate differences (elevation, soils, etc.). Jennifer

    Dr. Jennifer Bremer Visiting Associate Professor School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University

    Bremer.jennifer@gmail.com mobile: +1 301 955 6333 website & blog: Jennifer-Bremer.vpweb.com twitter: JBremerDevt

    Please note that this email is my permanent personal address and that the order of my name is REVERSED (someone else uses jennifer.bremer@gmail.com).

  2. Needs answering and soon.
    Bad management from germplasm to distribution, by domestic as opposed to foreign seed houses could be part of the problem, as you hint.
    But an historical review of the lack of a green revolution in Africa when Asia and the Latins thrived, would be a useful post. Start with the man from Minnesota and see if the man from Seattle is not facing the same problems now as the old hero of Asia faced in Africa then.

    There once was a man from Seattle
    Who said things just ain’t tickety boo.
    Let’s give the folks some help down there
    No, no, said the eco’s

    Got stuck there. But the times they ain’t a changing when it comes to eco’s blocking or trying to block African food security and the economic growth and development that results from that.

  3. Jennifer is right to point that high genotype-by-environment interactions are a big cause of farmer disappointment…and may ultimately be why they remain sceptical about some new varieties, regardless of the seed phyto-sanitary quality. But back to Francisco’s point about trust:

    “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.”

    I think there is a lot to that, though I don’t believe that market distrust is GENERALISED, but rather of specific markets. This is because farmers still pay for seed. Our own data (for many countries, but includes Kenya – and a MS I just read says the same for Uganda) indicate that farmers BUY over half of all their seed across all crops. They buy far more seed than they save. Most purchases are from local markets – ‘potential seed’ that is also suited for food, but which is pure enough and of high enough quality to sow.

    So it would seem farmers do trust some markets. This may have to do with the choice offered there (more than just maize, preferred local varieties, known adaptation zones). It may be about better access (price, distance, credit) in local markets. It may also be that farmers trust ‘social certification’ more than state certification, and sense they have more agency in local markets – especially with redress.

    for me, the key question is a better understanding of why farmers choose the seed channels they choose – recognising they use many channels. I’ll be interested to see the World bank and IFPRI studies, but frankly do not expect them to get far. proving malice, as opposed to sloppy management, would be difficult anywhere, let alone here!

    1. Thank you, Shawn. That’s just a much better way of saying what I intended to say.

      My thinking has evolved as I’ve looked more and more into this. At first, it was easy to see the tendency to rely on local markets as purely backward: a kind of atavism born of “innate backwardness and conservatism” or whatever that old chestnut was.

      More and more, I’m tempted to look at the Save Seed/Buy Informally/Buy Formally decision in game theoretic/evolutionary terms. Farmers with incomplete information about risk have to evaluate these options, then pick one, then see how that turns out. In the next period, they evaluate how it went, not just for them, but for their neighbours, discarding underperforming choices in favour of others.

      Clearly if “Buy Formal” was outperforming “Save Seed” and “Buy Informally” on a consistent basis, it would quickly spread and takeover the market. The fact that it doesn’t reveals that “Buy Formal” isn’t a superior solution in farmers’ eyes. The equilibrium outcome of this game tends to favour “buy informal”. But “Buy Informal” is never going to get you the yields that “Buy Formal” could, if formal seed was of the quality it ought to be.

    2. A big component of the heterogeneity that pushes farmers away might also be due to variability in management? The now popular G x E x M.

      In your experience Shawn, how much variability in management practices do you see at local (village) level? Conversely, when new seeds are introduced to a region, how much assistance/extension takes place to help farmers use appropriate management schemes for the new hybrids (which may be different from traditional varieties)?

    1. Joughin’s novel gives great insight into exactly how the Ugandan National Agricultural Advice Service (NAADS) turned almost invisibly, over a few years, from model development program into utter snake’s pit of corruption and despair, and the role bureaucratic inertia among donors played in enabling that transformation.

      But it goes back to what Jennifer was saying: farmer disappointment. When NAADS morphed from extension program to Pork Barrel Spending conduit, farmers lost access to vital advice on how to actually get the most out of improved seed. And you of all people know what happens when you change seeds without changing agronomic practice, Pepe.

      Farmer Disappointment: thine homes are many.

  4. I have to say my first thought was also similar to Jennifer’s. I do both research in rural issues, albeit not much in the way of reading regarding Africa, but I also have 13ha of land where we grow our own veg and we have enough variation of microclimates there to make a substantial difference in yields that helps me to understand the issues involved. Even if a crop performs astoundingly well on three out of four years, it is not enough if it fails one in four. Better to have consistent but lower yields every year than a catastrophic failure every fourth year when resources are tight. I can absorb losses and we grow enough variety to at least have something to eat, not everyone has that option and if seed companies had their way the variety of foods grown would drop substantially to those they can provide.

    Increasing the variety of plants grown would possibly lead to better outcomes than focussing on one or two crops, especially when weather variability is an issue.

  5. I still want to believe that if the gross margins are favourable (bearing in mind all the many and various factors), farmers will, on balance, in the round, adopt new technology. There is lots of evidence from many countries to this effect. In this case, the signals are all confused. I think ‘malice’ is too strong a word though. It’s just the way things work when there is a default deferring to authority and little or no regulation. I suppose the ‘evidence’ is mostly anecdotal but those doing the surveys told me 18 months ago that the counterfeit levels in the seed market reached 40%. Why they still have not published I don’t know. We need to find out!

  6. Interesting article and certainly food for thought. It is also a great piece which describes the challenges faced in African seed distribution systems, including poor storage, unsold seed from previous season being recycled especially in smaller companies, seed dumping, wrong ecological zones, etc. Larger companies might choose to distribute seed on consignment, and much of the seed is returned to the factory if not sold, for testing and good storage, before the following season. If a stockist or dealer has already purchased the seed and it didn’t get sold that year, the seed inevitably sits for the season before being sold the following season, upto a year later, and most is never re-tested. Indeed I agree with the author that there could be such a problem of poor physiological and genetic performance. Much of the problems of poor seed performance can also be a symptom of badly managed government or aid distribution programs awarded on a tender basis, but without the thought as what variety should be used, where and limited after sales support incentives. Smart farmer choice based subsidies or voucher programs go some way to resolve this issue. I agree with the author that these problems are symptoms of bigger issues and need addressed in a systematic and holistic approach.

    However, apart from this, sadly the evidence of the “lack of evidence” is not forthcoming. To the contrary, many of the seed companies operating in the region can easily show you their store rooms with the physical evidence of restitched/reused or fake bags, and tags, including all the associated bad spelling, coding errors, etc. I do hope those doing the surveys in Kenya and Uganda, will actually ask the seed companies themselves, and dealer / stockist networks.

    One thing I know for sure, when there is a demand for product that is performing well, and where that demand is not met, is where generally the problem of ‘fake seed’ occours. Very seldom is counterfeit seed found for products that are performing badly, as there simply is no cash incentive. Turns out counterfeiters are good business persons who know the performance of seed too!

  7. I loved the blog and the many responses (especially Voldemort!). Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone, and thanks Rita for connecting me with this site! Do not despair – it looks like there will be some inroads on the counterfeit front soon. Onward ho!

  8. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1574007209040730
    By Gollin and worth a read. Gollin and Dercon major on the role of agriculture in development with its beneficial impact on the major macroeconomic variables, although, as the above shows they have reservations too.
    But, for me, if every African small holder, raised his production by 100 per cent in cash or yield terms his life would be a lot easier and the macroeconomic effect would be beneficial. In simple terms, if basic carbohydrate production went from .5 mt to 1 mt then life would change, in a meaningful way, for the good of that house.

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