Africa can gain food security and wealth by building its seed industry, report finds

By Abubakar Ibrahim

September 23, 2019

Africa’s agricultural sector could generate an additional 25 million metric tons of food worth US$4 billion if even a fraction of its farmers adopt improved seeds, a new study has revealed.

That figure equals about 4 percent of the continent’s total agricultural gross domestic product (GDP), which is currently valued at about US$100 billion. And it could be achieved if even one-third of the farmers in just 15 of the continent’s 54 countries are able to obtain improved seed, according to a report by Kenyan-based Seeds Systems Group (SSG).

The report, released in Ghana this month at the world’s largest annual conference on African agriculture, Alliance for Green Revolution Forum 2019, expressed concern that the non-adoption of improved hybrid seeds is spreading hunger on the continent.

“Currently, the standard reuse of seed for the same low-yielding and often disease-ridden crop varieties makes it impossible for poor, smallholder farmers to improve their yield or the nutritional quality of their crops,” the report stated. “The result is stalled economic growth and widespread hunger and malnutrition, made more acute by the increasing extremes of climate that grip many farming communities.”

The report expressed confidence that increased adoption of improved seeds will transform food production and economic fortunes in some of the continent’s poorest countries.

“Fifteen African countries encompassing 315 million people and with average child malnutrition rates of 38 percent could significantly improve food security and nutrition by developing their seed industries,” the study observed.

Dr. Namanga Ngongi, Board chairman of SSG, called on African countries to “leapfrog development of their seed systems to bring their farmers quality seeds that yield more and stand up to climate change. Improved seeds improve lives.”

Dr. Joseph DeVries, president of SSG, noted that “without high quality seed, farmers can never expect to get ahead. Improved varieties are an incredibly valuable asset for combatting hunger and jump-starting rural economies across Africa.”

The report highlighted how a lot of African countries are struggling with their seed systems and called for a change. In Chad, for example, 15 million people live across a country more than twice the size of France—with large areas suitable for food production. However, Chad ranks 118 out of 119 countries in terms of food security. In rural areas, up to 44 percent of its people suffer from undernutrition. Crop yields are about a third that of countries with better developed seed systems.

In Benin, 1.3 million farmers grow maize, cassava, sorghum and other staples, yields of which average about 1.4 to 1.5 metric tons per hectare—about a ton or more below what would be possible with better seed. Malnutrition rates also are high at 45 percent. Quality seed could help boost production of nutritious, leafy vegetables. But to date, there have been no local, privately-owned seed companies operating in Benin.

In Togo, where agriculture accounts for about 41 percent of the GDP and employs roughly two-thirds of the population, maize yields are about 1.2 tons per hectare and do not allow farmers to be profitable. Yields for other crops such as sorghum are even lower and falling.

But the report also highlighted how countries like Ghana, Uganda and Burkina Faso are making a lot of progress with improved seeds, creating a model that other African countries can learn about.

In Ghana, for example, the country has grown from just three companies producing about 128 tons of seed in 2008 to eight companies producing about 6,000 tons.

“Much of that is seed for hybrid varieties that offer superior yields and better disease resistance because they naturally carry the best traits from both ‘parent’ plants. Before these companies arrived on the scene, farmers in Ghana had very little access to any kind of hybrid crops,” the report pointed out.

Similarly, though Uganda had no seed industry in 2007, it currently has more than 24 local seed companies in operation.

“The amount of high-quality seed produced [in Uganda] has more than tripled, from approximately 8,000 metric tons in 2010 to 26,700 metric tons in 2017,” the report observed. “At the same time, the amount of maize harvested per hectare of land has increased from 1.5 metric tons to 2.5 metric tons, with many farmers reaching as much as five tons per hectare.”

In Burkina Faso, local companies supplied farmers with just about 279 metric tons per year in 2007. By 2017, rapid progress with four local startups increased that amount 25-fold, to 7,000 tons.

DeVries said this progress shows other countries struggling with their seed sectors how they can change things and improve food production.

“We believe this [use of improved seeds] is the way forward for countries determined to improve the lives of their rural populations, to feed all their people, and to sustain their natural environments,” he said.