Smallholder farmers to enjoy increased access to seed varieties

By Byron Mutingwende

Sub-Saharan African smallholder farmers will have access to more seed varieties to boost food crops production following the launch of The African Seed Access Index (TASAI).

TASAI is the first ever initiative dedicated solely to monitoring the state of Africa’s rapidly evolving seed sector on seed development and distribution in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe, with a focus on increasing choices for smallholder farmers.

In a recent press release, Ed Mabaya, assistant director of Cornell University’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD) and head of the TASAI project said: “We’ve known for a long time that a key reason yields on African farms lag far behind even those in other developing countries is that African farmers often lack access to improved varieties of staple crops such as maize, cowpea and sorghum.

“We think that by tracking indicators along the seed delivery chain—like the number of crop breeders, varieties released, industry competitiveness, availability of seed in small packages, and quality of the seed policy framework—investors and policymakers can target choke points that are impeding the flow of seeds to smallholder farmers.”

Kenya was rated as poor in a key measure of industry competiveness in that government-controlled companies still account for the lion’s share of seed sales, which can discourage new start-ups from entering the market.

On the other hand South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe were rated excellent in this category as their governments have largely gotten out of the seed business. In South Africa, seed production was thriving, but poor in terms of making seeds accessible to smallholder farmers. The Ugandan seed sector was be growing but burdened with weak seed policies and regulations. Zimbabwe’s once vital seed sector was showing signs of decline, the study noted.

In a telephone interview, Mabaya said there was need for more research on availing drought-tolerant seed varieties particularly in Southern Africa due to the unpredictable weathe r and climatic patterns.

“I was in Zimbabwe towards during Christmas of 2014 and the whole country was experiencing good rains and crops were doing well. Just at a time when the crops were about to be ripe, there was a dry spell countrywide resulting in most crops wilting – a development that will negatively affect the entire yield hence it is necessary to invest in the production of more drought-tolerant seed varieties,” Mabaya said.

TASAI was developed by CIIFAD in collaboration with Market Matters Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to small- and medium-size enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa, among them a growing number of African-owned seed businesses.

Mabaya added that TASAI was inspired by the fact that money—from governments, private sector players and donors—is swiftly flowing to agriculture projects across Africa, but information available to guide investments is often anecdotal.

“There are enormous opportunities to develop sustainable seed production capacity in Africa,” he said. “But investments—whether in the form of private capital or development aid—are often constrained by a poor understanding of what each country needs.”

He said TASAI seeks to fill that void by systematically tracking 16 indicators across five categories that assess the vibrancy and competitiveness of the national seed sector by measuring the health of such things as research and development, service to smallholder farmers and industry competitiveness.

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