Media CenterQ&A: A New Study Calls for a Change in the Way Seed is Delivered to Smallholder Farmers

Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS

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Catholic Relief Services speaks with Dr. Louise Sperling, Senior Technical Advisor, about a new study she co-authored that finds most African smallholder farmers are not getting enough seed varieties to help them face the stresses and opportunities of agriculture. The main findings of the report, which examined some 10,000 seed transactions across five African countries and Haiti, states that local markets are the main seed source for famers but need more support and investment to provide the quality and variety seed to ensure smallholder farmers can improve their nutrition and resilience. At the same time, the report calls on commercial seed companies to continue and diversify their critical seed sales to include more types of crops and at more remote outlets across Africa.

CRS: What are the central findings of this study?

Dr. Louise Sperling: Though development programs routinely support commercial seed companies, smallholder farmers in Africa and Haiti are not really accessing their seed through these channels. In fact, only 2 percent of seeds come from commercial seed enterprises.

That said, farmers are buying seed - more than half the seed they sow – but mostly from local markets. So there seems to be an important disconnect between the formal supply mechanisms and what smallholder farmers want and need.  Because local markets have historically not received sufficient support to meet the demand, farmers cannot get access to better quality seed or get access to new varieties, which are not even on offer for most crops.

The lack of access to new varieties is especially alarming as public sector breeding has had many advances --and a good number of new releases in most countries in Africa.  So one might ask, why continue the science of plant breeding when there is no science of delivery?

CRS: These findings are quite dramatic- why were they not revealed before?

Dr. Louise Sperling: We have always known, anecdotally, that local markets or other informal sources of seed, such as farmers’ neighbors, for example, were and are still important. There exist many guesstimates in the literature:  different reports suggest that up to 90 percent of seed comes from the informal sector.

What is truly distinct about this study is its scale, its seed-specific rigor and the wide profile of crops considered.  The findings are bold.  They are no longer anecdotal. 

Our study examined 10,000 seed transactions, and looked at all the different ways farmers might access seed for some 40 different crops. Our research dispelled the common myth that ‘poor farmers always save their seed from their own harvests. In contrast, farmers get most of their seed, season after season, from local markets

CRS: Does your study imply that seed companies have failed to reach farmers? 

Dr. Louise Sperling: What the work shows is that seed companies have had some success, modest success, focusing near exclusively on maize and vegetable seed. But, even in maize-crazy places like Kenya and Malawi, with fairly good agro-dealer networks, farmers are sourcing more maize seed from local markets than from formal outlets. 

Companies might usefully review their maize outreach strategies to reach more of those farmers ‘at the last mile’ – meaning in areas so remote that they have been untouched by commercial seed suppliers.   This need to extend reach is not just good business, it is increasingly urgently needed development. New varieties of maize, climate-resilient maize, have been developed.  These drought-tolerant and water efficient maizes need to be put on offer in areas mostly affected by climate change -  often far from the town centers where agro-dealerships are clustered.

But what the research also shows is how much the seed company model has ignored the importance of legumes for small holder farmers. Legumes are key to healthy nutrition and we hope the research will prompt big seed companies to consider delivery systems of these crops to areas where they’re most needed.

CRS: What are the main practical implications of this research? 

Dr. Louise Sperling: Both the formal sector and the informal sector need to be strengthened to better serve smallholder farmers.  We need a real seed system re-orientation.  A Seed Change.  A Seed System Revolution. Our recommendations are:

For the formal sector:  The formal seed sector might best be re-steered so its focus is explicitly on smallholder farmers.  Right now, particularly with the non-maize crops, seed companies often remain solvent because they focus on big institutional clients, rather than millions of smallholder farmers.  So institutions buy big lots of seed, which they hand out for free to farmers, undermining local markets and the local economy.  Certainly not a sustainable model.  And with these handouts, farmers basically have no choice on crop or variety -  just take it or leave it.

So the formal sector has to be re-oriented towards smallholders as their main customers.    The article describes some practical moves—increasing outlets in rural areas; licensing mom and pop stores to sell seed; vending smaller, affordable pack sizes; developing two-way information systems which incorporate feedback.

For the informal sector: The power of the informal sector needs to be harnessed much better.  This is where farmers are getting the bulk of their seed and for a large range of crops. Remember, smallholder farmers are already paying for more than half of the seed they sow.  There are huge opportunities to serve them better.

New varieties have to be injected into informal channels faster and more widely.  Seed quality also needs to be improved. Ultimately, to harness the informal sector more effectively, seed laws will have to be modified so as to recognize a larger range of potential sellers and also a greater range of acceptable seed qualities. 

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Kim Pozniak

Director of Communications

Kim Pozniak
January 12, 2016

Based in Baltimore, MD

As the Director of Communications, Kim overseas the communications and social media teams working with journalists and the media to connect them with engaging stories about relief and development programs that are making a tangible difference in people’s lives around the world.

Her previous work at CRS includes handling emergency...More