Friday, January 29, 2016

African smallholder farmers miss out on 'improved crop varieties' through informal seed markets



Busani Bafana

Farmers asked to move from saved seeds to boost yield

TSHOLOTSHO, Zimbabwe (PAMACCNews)  - Another drought is sweeping across Zimbabwe triggering food and water desperation. But maize and cattle farmer, Sophie Sibanda (63),  is still hopeful for miracle rains to save her cattle at least but not her sun-scorched crop.

"I will not get anything" Sibanda says of the uneven mottle maize crop that she planted more out of habit than careful planning. Most farmers in the Southern part of the country have not planted this season owing to a drought, induced by the El Nino phenomenon already underway. An El Nino event occurs when the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean warm, changing global rain patterns.


"I may plant again if it rains soon," Sibanda told PAMACCNews. "I use my saved seed which have produced a harvest in the many years I have planted them."

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations projects that 1,5 million Zimbabweans will need food aid to see them through to March this year pending a reasonable national maize harvest.

Zimbabwe's Meteorological Services Department has predicted normal to below normal rains throughout the country.  However, prospects for rain are even dimmer in arid areas like Tsholotsho District - 220 km North West of the city of Bulawayo - prone to drought and hunger each year. Though dampened, Sibanda is adamant about planting certified seed.

"I save seed each harvest season," says 53-year old Sibanda. "I never buy seed from the stores, I save seed for maize, beans, sorghum and millet and my some of my neighbours come to me for seed."

Preferring the indigenous maize seed variety known as ibhabhadla in the Ndebele language or Hickory King, Sibanda prizes this variety with distinctive broad grains. It is favoured for making a variety of dishes, including the national staple, isitshwala.

Sibanda's seed saving habit makes her an exception of smallholder farmers, going by findings of a new study published recently in the Food Security Journal. The study which researchers say is the first to quantify, crop by crop, where African farmers obtain seed, examined some 10,000 seed transactions in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.

Friends, fellow farmers and local markets are where smallholder farmers go to for their seed needs, said a joint study by the Catholic Relief Services, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Researchers discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, most smallholder farmers in Africa—the continent’s dominant producers who typically cultivate crops on about a hectare or less of land—are not reliant on seeds saved from year to year. Instead, some 55 percent of seed they plant is brought mainly from local markets, friends and fellow farmers.

At the same time, a relatively small proportion of transactions less than 2.4 percent overall, involving "certified seed" produced by private sector companies and sold through agro dealers.   

Study co-author and Senior Technical Advisor for the Agriculture and Livelihoods at the Catholic Relief Services, Louise Sperling, said smallholder farmers purchased seed informally rather relying on saved seed yet did not access to new crop varieties that could help them improve nutrition and adapt to climate change.

"The fact that farmers quite often do buy seed highlights real opportunities to link farmers to the outputs from research – new crop varieties," Sperling told  PAMACCNews. "There is strong evidence that farmers are interested in trying new crops and varieties, especially for grain legumes with traits that are useful like high protein, market value, or stress tolerance."


Seed companies can do more to work with smallholder farmers as clients, including licensing outlets in remote rural areas, which are more accessible to many farmers and offering seeds in smaller packets, which are more affordable and which encourage farmers to try out new crop varieties, authors of the study said.

"The informal sector, especially local markets, should become a significant partner – this is where farmers are getting half of all their seed (and most of their legume seed) already," said Dr. Shawn McGuire, a co-author of the study and Senior Lecturer at the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia.

Commercial seed is a multi-billion dollar global including in Africa, a continent looking to its agriculture to bolster its economic fortunes. But sub-Saharan Africa has a paltry three percent share of the estimated US$30 billion global seed business, according to the African Seed Traders Association (AFSTA).

Small holder farmers, policy makers and civil society organisations fearing private sector control of seeds have resisted commercialisation of seed systems in Sub Saharan Africa.

The African Centre for Biodiversity - a non-profit organisation, working to protect Africa's biodiversity from the industrial agriculture - argues that farmers should be directly involved in the selection, improvement and production of seed which is not possible under current Green Revolution initiatives in Africa.

Africa's agriculture sector is lagging behind the rest of the world because of a combination of challenges, access to certified seed being one of the frequently cited. Besides, highly fragmented seed systems, inconsistent policies, high costs for registering new varieties and an inadequate infrastructure to support the development of the seed industry hinder agriculture growth.

Davison Masendeke, the Matabeleland North provincial agronomist in the Department of Agriculture Extension Services under the Ministry of Agriculture in Zimbabwe says while smallholder farmers can improve their production through best agronomic practises, they need to consider high yielding and early maturing varieties which can help them tackle climate change.

"The informal seed market is very important for smallholder farmers especially for Open Pollinated maize varieties, legumes and small grains, Masendeke, told PAMACCNews. "High yielding short season varieties are crucial in the face of climate change but they come at a cost."

Governments and seed producers in Africa need to quickly tap the informal seed market because smallholder farmers like Sibanda cannot wait long for formal channels when their saved seed and informal markets work best for them.


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