Africa’s food security threatened by poorly performing seed industry

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

May 9, 2019

The poor performance of Africa’s seed industry is threatening food security on the continent, warns a new report.

“The overall picture is one of international and African seed companies falling short in delivering quality seed and new varieties to smallholder farmers. This limits the potential to address food security, nutrition and climate resilience,” revealed the study by Amsterdam-based Access to Seeds Foundation on the performance of 23 major seed companies in 22 West and Central African countries.

Though an increasing number of seed companies have launched on the continent over the last decade, they are not investing in breeding new varieties locally for the benefit of farmers, the report found. Many of the companies apparently have built a business model around importing and distributing seeds, instead of investing in local plant breeding programs to develop new seed varieties.

“While there is a growing number of seed companies active in the region, both homegrown and international, less than half of the 23 companies researched conduct plant breeding in Western and Central Africa. This limits the release of new varieties adapted to the region,” the report noted.

“Plant breeding is the core activity of many seed companies around the world, but this is not the case in Western and Central Africa,” the report added. “Only 11 of the 23 index companies conduct plant breeding. In 15 of the 22 countries in scope (representing 70 percent), no breeding by index companies was found.”

This has resulted in a situation where many of the varieties being sold by African seed companies are more than five years old, making it impossible for farmers to cope with rapid developments such as new pests and diseases or erratic weather conditions resulting from a changing climate.

“The lack of newly developed varieties seriously impacts the resilience to a changing climate and emerging disease and pests, which reduces yields,” the report noted.

Earlier this year, a similar report by the group highlighted how global seed companies are not reaching smallholder farmers across the world, thereby making it impossible for them to produce crops efficiently.

Now, this latest report shows local companies in the West and Central African regions are struggling to fill the void created by the absence of global firms — despite their possible capacity to do so. “Our study shows the potential of homegrown seed companies. However, most operate only in their home markets, which causes geographic imbalances in seed sector development,” Ido Verhagen, executive director at Access to Seeds Index, observed.

Verhagen expressed concern that the situation means “capacity-building activities offered by companies only reach farmers in a handful of countries.” The report noted training is offered by index companies in only about 45 percent of the countries surveyed. “This limits the adoption of new technologies by farmers in overlooked countries,” he observed.

The study comes at a time when the number of undernourished people has been on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa since 2014. In West Africa, undernourishment has risen to 15.1 percent of the population in 2017, up from 10.4 percent in 2010. Climate change and weather extremes have been identified as a major reason for the increase.

The report noted a well-functioning seed industry has a vital role to play in helping farmers to adapt to climatic challenges while simultaneously raising production levels. “The relevance of access to seeds and plant breeding should not be underestimated,” the report noted.

Turn around needed

Concerns about the local seed industry failing African farmers have been a major issue under discussion among players in the continent’s seed industry for some years now. The Integrated Seed Sector Development in Africa (ISSD Africa) ‚ a community of research institutions that includes the International Food and Policy Research Institute in the United States and Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands — has identified lack of quality seeds as “one of the most pressing issues hindering productivity increase in Africa.”

In a March 2019 publication, ISSD Africa noted seed sector development is a challenge across the African continent.

“Whereas every country is unique, often countries face similar challenges in seed sector development, like difficulties in assuring seed quality,” Wageningen’s Marja Thijssen noted. “Farmers in Africa lose millions of dollars each year using seeds with low germination rate or seeds that do not germinate at all.”

Scientists are calling for increased investments in the local seed industry across the African continent to help fix these challenges and ensure the availability of quality seeds to farmers. Dr. Emmanuel Chamba, a plant breeder at the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute in Ghana, said there is also a need for better regulatory policies in the local seed industry.

“You have to invest more resources in the local seed sector,” Chamba told the Alliance for Science in an interview. “But you don’t just invest and leave it to the farmer. You need to introduce better policies and properly regulate how things are done. That is how to grow the industry.”

Chamba also called for intentional efforts to establish structures like seed banks across the continent, noting these are needed for a properly functioning seed industry.