Blog Post

Smallholders and Seeds: How Private Sector Companies Are Improving Access

An estimated 80 percent of farmers in eastern Africa are smallholders, according to the first Access to Seeds Index released by the Access to Seeds Foundation .  Most of these farmers rely on rain-fed irrigation, use minimal inputs, and produce mostly low-yield staple food crops. Traditionally, the majority of seeds used have been obtained informally (either saved from previous harvests, exchanged with neighbors, or bought in informal markets), the report says. But regional seed companies are starting to play a larger role in providing seeds for improved plant varieties to small farmers in the region. These improved varieties— embodied in seed — can help farmers adapt to climate-driven challenges, improving both yields and livelihoods.

The regional index for eastern Africa looks at a total of 17 seed companies that cover the full seed value chain, from research and development through marketing and sales. A range of stakeholders were consulted to collect data, including smallholder farmers, seed company representatives, governments, multilateral organizations and NGOs, and academic researchers.

The index ranks seed companies’ commitment, performance, transparency, and innovation. . These indicators are measured across seven areas: (1) Governance & Strategy, (2) Public Policy & Stakeholder Engagement, (3) Genetic Resources & Intellectual Property, (4) Research & Development, (5) Marketing & Sales, (6) Capacity Building and (7) Production. A company’s overall score is calculated as the weighted sum of the scores for all indicators. Following the advice of the Expert Review Committee for the eastern Africa index, greater weight is assigned to the areas of Performance, Research & Development, and Marketing & Sales because these were expected to most directly influence smallholders’ access to seeds. [1]

One of the most important factors in a successful formal seed sector is a proper business-enabling environment that allows private sector companies to thrive. The report finds that many countries in eastern Africa are plagued by inadequate business regulations and levels of investment in agriculture, which reduce the availability of improved varieties, increase the cost of seeds, impede the distribution of seeds to market, and put a damper on innovation.

Regional companies are making strides to fill these gaps, however, and many have a particular focus on smallholders. One in three of the regional companies studied has a formal corporate commitment to the needs of small farmers; six out of the 17 companies have put in place strong programs to reach smallholders in remote areas. The report points out, however, that these programs do not yet cover half of the countries studied and could thus be significantly expanded.

The report also found that regional companies tend to support the efforts of public gene banks to conserve genetic resources and often allow both national and international research institutes access to their genetic resources. Regional companies also focus more on local crops than do global companies; the companies studied breed improved varieties of seven out of ten important local crops such as amaranth, cowpea, and pigeon pea. Only lablab (a species of native bean) and tef do not appear in any of the companies’ breeding programs, likely because they are considered “orphan crops” with small markets and little incentives for investment.

Eleven of the companies studied actively work with smallholders during their R&D phases, and four companies claim to involve women farmers in the R&D process. Smallholders also participate in on-farm trials and variety selections that inform the breeding stage. However, the report points out that companies could enact more formal commitments to include smallholders in R&D, which would make their commitments more transparent and measurable.

Finally, the report finds that regional companies effectively supply improved varieties to smallholders and effectively tailor their marketing strategies to meet the needs of local farmers, particularly when compared to global companies. Regional companies are more likely to use open-pollinated varieties that farmers can save from harvest for planting in subsequent seasons, localized seed packages, and demonstration services that take into account the languages, cultures, traditional practices, and education of local farmers. Again, however, the report emphasizes that regional companies could make more transparent formal commitments regarding the quality of their seed varieties.

Overall, the report notes that regional seed companies tend to be more in-tune with the needs and realities of local smallholder farmers in eastern Africa than global companies. These companies include farmers in the R&D and breeding process and take farmers’ needs into account in their marketing and sales structures. However, important gaps remain, particularly in terms of capacity-building programs for smallholders.

[1] The report noted that the methodology faced some limitations in terms of the comparability of companies, crops, and smallholder populations, as well as the data available and the use of a weighted scorecard methodology. These limitations resulted in more general recommendations rather than country- or crop-specific lessons. The report also notes that future iterations of the report may adjust weights or focus more on country- or crop-level differences to provide potentially more meaningful results.