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Sub-Saharan Africa launches first "early generation" seed entity

Sub-Saharan Africa has established its first “early generation” seed production entity, boosting capacity to effectively and efficiently supply high quality foundation seed for small and medium enterprise (SME) companies on the continent.

The entity, to be known as QualiBasic Seed, is seen as a way to boost yields and offset crop losses among small-holder farmers. It will be based in Nairobi, Kenya, and has received an initial five-year investment of US $8.4 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Denis Kyetere, executive director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, made the announcement Jan. 30 at a media briefing in Nairobi. QualiBasic was established to address the acute technical, infrastructural, and financial challenges that seed companies face in the maintenance, multiplication, and timely supply of quality foundation seed, which is critically essential to improve productivity on small-holder farms, he said.

Many seed companies on the continent have been using poor quality foundation seed, which results in low crop yields and even crop failure for some small-holder farmers, Kyetere said. This, in turn, affects sustainable food production and costs the continent a valuable development opportunity.

“Eighty percent of the SME seed companies, which can reach more than 60 percent of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, have difficulties with production and maintenance of high quality foundation seed due to technical, infrastructural, and financial challenges,” Kyetere said.

Enock Chikava, deputy director Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the foundation’s investment in QualiBasic helps small-holder farmers, especially women, realize the full genetic gains of climate resilient crop varieties developed through public research and development.

“Huge investments have been made by donors through various global public crop improvement programs for the benefit of African farmers,” Chikava said. “These breeding programs have released high yielding and very adaptable crop varieties, for example, maize hybrids that offer high productivity opportunities. However, the benefits of these products are yet to be realized by smallholder farmers due to delayed seed production in some cases and low quality seed in others.”

Chikava added that the Foundation is pleased to partner with AATF, a not-for-profit organization established to access, develop, adapt and deliver appropriate agricultural technologies for sustainable use by smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, and its collaborators in this venture. He said the partnership “will ensure integrity of the quality of foundation seed available to seed companies, that will in turn increase the productivity of land and labor, increase incomes and nutrition for the small holder farmers and hence trigger the much needed agricultural transformation process in Africa.”

Kyetere said that operating a functional foundation seed production system could cost a company, regardless of size, about US $500,000 per year which is too expensive for many SME seed companies. Therefore, investing a similar amount to operate a centralized system that services the foundation seed needs of various seed companies would make foundation seed production more effective and efficient, benefiting from economies of scale and use of the most ideal agro-ecologies and seasons.

“To satisfy this need, QualiBasic will be set up as a centralized production system to serve the foundation seed needs of a large number of seed companies, which will make it more affordable for users,” said Kyetere, noting that similar models have been successful in other parts of the world, such as the US and India.

Under the partnership, AATF will help establish and nurture QualiBasic into a professional, fully-fledged, independent, and sustainable private sector-driven business within five years. QualiBasic operations will start with foundation seed for maize in East and Southern Africa, then grow to serve other cereals and legumes across SSA when fully functional.

Three foundation seed production hubs with seed processing and storage facilities will be established in Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa by the second and third year of operations, in order to meet demand for products in a timely manner and avoid lengthy delays in seed movements.

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