Want farmers to use improved seed? Sell them locally, expert says

Farmer holds out hand filled with maize seeds. (Daniella Van Leggelo-Padilla / World Bank)

This should come as little surprise. When farmers in developing countries go to buy new seeds for planting crops, they buy locally. Efforts to bring improved seed varieties to smallholder farmers means working with local businesses and informal sellers, said Shawn McGuire, a researcher at the University of East Anglia.

Analyzing roughly 10,000 seed transactions in Haiti and five African countries showed that more than half of farmers are buying seeds each year. But only 2.4 percent of all the purchases were through major supply stores for certified seeds. Since most of the focus is on the larger dealers when it comes to improved seed, many farmers are missing out, said McGuire and his co-researcher Louise Sperling, a senior technical adviser at Catholic Relief Services.

It upends the idea that the majority of smallholder farmers were saving and using seeds from previous crops. That assumption has led to policies that are aimed at convincing farmers that they need to buy new seeds to improve their crops.

“Some see this as a disaster, but this is an opportunity,” said McGuire in an interview with Humanosphere. “Farmers are buying from local markets because the markets give them more choice. We need to look at different business models.”

Farmers in Kenya, Malawi, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Haiti were interviewed as part of the research backed by a consortium of organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development. Their transaction tracking shows, for example, that 11.6 percent of seed sales in Kenya were through agrodealers and mostly for maize. Given the variety of crops planted by farmers each year, they say it shows the limited reach of these formal businesses.

The research makes its appeal to the groups invested in developing and selling improved seeds. Drought-tolerant maize and blight-resistant potatoes could help farmers, but they need to be made available for purchase in order to have any impact. Local markets do not necessarily have access to selling such seeds and are more likely to carry fake-seed varieties. Agrodealers are meant to sell certified seed – making a guarantee to farmers that they are getting what they pay for.

But if farmers are buying locally, then the way things are done must change. McGuire suggested that resources should be directed toward figuring out how to get more and better seeds into the local markets. That means rethinking how seed-access programs are operating.

“Selling seeds through more informal channels poses challenges for quality assurance, but they are not insurmountable,” Sperling said, in a statement. “We can’t wait for formal channels like you find in Europe and the United States to fully mature in Africa, particularly when they are failing to move an entire category of critical crops like legumes. The bottom line is we need to be more open to new ways of getting seed to farmers and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

McGuire and Sperling’s research was published recently in the research journal Food Security. Their hope is that the case for a smallholder farmer-focused seed strategy will take shape. The if-you-build-it-they-will-come model of seed access is not reaching everyone, maybe it is time for seed to join the go-local trend.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.