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Local Start-Ups Dominate Africa’s Seed Industry

  • Kim Lewis

Access to improved seed can boost farmers yields

Access to improved seed can boost farmers yields

A new report released on May 7, finds that locally owned African seed companies now dominate Africa’s seed industry. The analysis was conducted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). It revealed that 80 small- to medium-sized African seed companies in 16 countries are equipped to produce over 80,000 metric tons of professionally certified seeds in 2014.

AGRA’s director of Program for Africa’s Seed Systems, also called PASS, says Africa’s entrepreneurial spirit is evident in the rapid growth of local seed companies over a very short time.

Dr. Joe DeVries discussed how access to local seed that has become essential to Africa’s farmers.

Take advantage of new seed trade policies

“If you look historically, seed has always been viewed as a critical input, and even one that’s kind of ‘sine qua non’, you know for a green revolution, but we never really were approaching it the right way.

“We were using public agencies to get seed to farmers. We were doing ad hoc projects funded by donors to get the seeds to farmers, but we never really treated it as a local business.

“So, what we’ve done is said, “Look. Using entrepreneurship and taking advantage of some of the new policies that liberalize commerce in seeds in Africa, we can make a difference now.”

The report argued that if you identify better varieties of crops that farmers can grow, and link those breeding programs to entrepreneurs, they can become successful. But, said DeVries, don’t stop there.

“Really stick with them and do some training,” the AGRA program director said. “Help them to develop a little bit of infrastructure around production, processing, and distribution of seed…” DeVries said the benefit is “a predictable outcome which is good for farmers and very good for Africa.”

The minister who inspired Nigeria’s seed industry

Nigeria is a success story because the nation rapidly produced many varieties of thousands of tons of seeds each year through partnerships and a revolutionary concept authored by Nigeria’s minister of agriculture, Akinwumi Adesina, who is also a former AGRA vice president.

DeVries said Adesina liberalized the production of foundation seed. “Foundation seed is the seed you use to produce certifieds. And for a long time in Nigeria, it was just not there. So, even if you wanted to run a seed company, you wouldn’t have enough foundation seed stock to get up to the critical level where you could operate profitably.”

When these barriers were removed, DeVries said a new program ensured that all of the deserving farmers in the country could obtain a voucher that would allow them to purchase the seeds they needed from an agro dealer at a reduced price.

Through AGRA intervention, DeVries said, they drew the attention of the Nigerian government “so that it could actually have something to work with. And then further upstream, we’re continuing to support the breeding of improved varieties,” said the AGRA program director.

More success stories in the African seen industry are coming, he said, but they face challenges for smallholder farmers who need support to purchase the high-priced fertilizers.

“I certainly hope that more governments will institute subsidy programs to reduce the price of fertilizer,” said DeVries. “We feel like the seed industry can probably continue to serve up seed at an affordable price for smallholder farmers, but fertilizers really are expensive,” he said. In the short term these subsidies will be crucial to opening up markets for African seeds in Europe and the United States.

DeVries stressed that now that good seed is available for smallholder farmers, they need support to buy the fertilizers to improve crop production.