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Political Economy of Cereal Seed Systems in Africa Project

Maize_commercialThis project is exploring the political economy of cereal seed systems across five distinct country contexts (Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Ghana and Zimbabwe). Each country has a very different history of research and development in this area; in each setting the importance of the public or the private sector differs, with different actors and interests involved; each country has a different reliance on ‘modern’ hybrid (or sometimes biotech) varieties and associated R&D and supply systems; and each country has a different form and extent of independent informal sector, involving networks of farmer experimenters and seed bulkers and suppliers.

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  • Background

  • Phase 1

  • Phase 2

The gap in current research

agrodealerkenya2As calls for a ‘Uniquely African Green Revolution’ gain momentum, the focus on seeds and seed systems is rising up the policy agenda. Much of the debate emphasises the technological or market dimensions, with substantial investments being made in seed improvement and the development of both public and private sector delivery systems. But there is currently much less emphasis on the wider policy dimensions – and particularly the political economy of policymaking in diverse African contexts.

Experience tells us that it is these factors that often make or break even the best designed and most well intentioned intervention. And since investment in seed improvement and supply was last emphasised as a major development priority (in the 1970s and 80s), contexts have changed. The collapse of national public sector breeding systems has been dramatic, and this has only been selectively compensated for by the entry of the private sector. Large multinational seed and agricultural supply companies are increasingly dominating the global scene, and there are many claims made about the promises of new technologies (notably transgenics) transforming the seed sector through a technological revolution. While informal breeding and seed supply systems continue to exist, and indeed have been extensively supported through NGO and other projects, they are often under pressure, as drought, corruption and conflict take their toll and economic transformation and livelihood change continues apace.

The focus on cereal seed systems allows the research to concentrate on a similar set of crops across the four study countries with a key influence on food security at household and national levels. Given the political reverberations of the ‘food crisis’ of 2007-08, this allows for a timely analysis of the implications of the policy processes shaping the breeding, production, marketing and distribution of cereal seeds. Whether grown for local subsistence or traded commercially, the significance of cereal crops to national politics (and so arguments about food security and sovereignty), commercial interests and local livelihoods – is likely to be profound.


The project will test the hypothesis that contrasting politics and different configurations of interests will make a difference to the way cereal seed systems operate and how a ‘new green revolution’ push in envisaged and ultimately plays out. The underlying implication is that politics matter and engagement with policy processes is important – defining and then deliberating among different framings and interests – i.e. beyond the technical/market fix.

A focus on seed policy processes

• How do seed policies get created, by whom?
• How do ideas about what makes a ‘good’ seed policy evolve and change?
• How are boundaries drawn around seed problems and policy storylines elaborated?
• Whose voices and views are taken into account in the seed policy process? And what/who is excluded?
• What spaces exist for new ideas, actors, networks? How can these be opened up?

Key Questions - and methods

• What is the seed policy framework, and how has it changed (timeline)?
• What are the main narratives about seed, agriculture, food that define policy processes (narrative analysis)?
• Who are the main actors involved in the seed system – and how are they connected (actor network analysis)?
• What are the main interests driving seed policy (and so the framing of narratives and the configuration of actor networks)? (political economy analysis)
• How does all this relate to the situation on the ground (implementation stories and field practices)

More on Methodology

Overall, an historical approach will be necessary to trace changes in the way policies have been framed, looking at the shifts in narratives about what the problem is and what should be done about it over time. Changes in the configuration of actors, their networks and associated interests will also help illuminate how contemporary policies have emerged. A basic mapping of the current situation will take place, involving interviews with key players (from government policymakers to public/private, national/ international researchers to commercial sector seed suppliers and traders to farmers in different parts of the country and with different resource endowments).

This approach will allow the research to elaborate (in largely qualitative terms), first, the set of ‘narratives’ (stories about the problems and the appropriate solutions) being deployed by different people. Second, the way such actors interact and relate will be mapped, highlighting key gaps and connections. Third, the interests of different groupings will be analysed, looking at the competing power relations involved, and asking who wins, and who loses in policy formulation and its implementation. Finally, areas of contention and debate will be identified for each country setting, highlighting areas for institutional and policy development (for example, around issues of regulation, certification, priority setting and so on).


Phase 1 - Broad Scoping Country Studies and Lead Authors (July 2009 - April 2010)

Kenya (Hannigton Odame) – agro-dealers and the market solution: politics, interests and who wins and loses from the new GR?

Malawi (Blessings Chinsinga) – the politics of maize and input subsidy programmes: how diverse interests converge around a particular technical-economic trajectory

Zimbabwe (Charity Mutonhodza) – rebuilding the seed system post ‘collapse’: why top-down government/aid programmes may make things worse

Ghana (Kojo Amanor) – Green revolution narratives and local-level realities: how a technocratic approach overwhelms alternative perspectives on breeds and seeds

Ethiopia (Dawit Alemu) – liberalisation under state control: the politics of the emergent private sector seed industry

This work was developed further at a planning workshop held at IDS in July 2009. A literature review and compilation of documentation is now complete and the results were presented at the FAC Annual Meeting 2010, in Brighton, UK. At this stage plans for follow up on work will be defined based on key areas/themes identified in the first phase studies.

Phase II Focused Country Studies and Lead Authors (April 2010 – December 2011)

Kenya (Hannigton Odame) – Assessing the limits of current Agro-Dealer model to identify different approaches that promote sustainability and equity

Malawi (Blessings Chinsinga) – Relationship between agro-dealers and seed companies and how politics, particularly in relationship to input support programmes, are shaping their fortunes

Zimbabwe (Charity Mutonhodza) – Examine different pilot projects that produce relief seed for different public and private delivery channels and assess their relative merits for the purposes of rebuilding the seed system

Ghana (Kojo Amanor) – Longitudinal analysis of changing patterns of seed and input usage over time in different agro-ecological settings

Ethiopia (Dawit Alemu) – Evaluating Farmer-Based Seed Multiplication. Many actors pushing FBSM, but different narratives are driving their agendas



Phase 1 - Broad Scoping Country Studies

agrodealerkenya The first phase is now complete, with the publication of 5 working papers.Each paper explores the political economy of cereal seed systems in five distinct country contexts – Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Ghana and Zimbabwe – during 2009-10.

The underlying implication in all these cases is that politics matter and that by engaging critically with seed policy processes, we can begin to define and then deliberate among different framings and interests to shift the focus of the debate beyond the usual technical/market fix.

The evolution of seed research and development programmes and processes has varied greatly across these countries. In each case, a unique set of public and private actors and interests has been involved in defining priorities in seed policy and implementing projects, each seeking to influence those agendas to their advantage. Moreover, each country has a different reliance on ‘modern’ hybrid (or sometimes biotech) varieties and associated R&D and supply systems and an independent informal sector, involving networks of farmer experimenters and seed bulkers and suppliers, with varying degrees of capacity.

Tthe five country studies analysed their respective national seed policy processes by asking:

• How do seed policies get created, and by whom?
• How do ideas about what makes a ‘good seed policy’ change over time?
• How are boundaries drawn around seed problems and policy ‘storylines’ elaborated?
• Whose voices are taken into account in the seed policy process? And whose are excluded?
• What spaces exist for new ideas, actors and networks?
• How can these be opened up?

Country case studies: key findings

Across the five countries studied in Phase I, there is a diversity of political-economic drivers influencing outcomes.

• In Ghana a strong commitment to agribusiness development dominates policy and is reinforced by US-funded NGOs (notably CNFA) and private capital. This results in a particular configuration of actors defining the green revolution. This has knock-on effects in the traditional areas of public research and extension, changing priorities and practice. Over time this has reduced earlier efforts at a more participatory, farmer-led approach, with the policy focus now dominated by a commercial-agribusiness model. This serves a particular set of political-economic interests, whereby a close alliance between the state, local/foreign capital and business interests and donors and NGOs construct a particular vision of the future of agriculture. As a result there is no separation of policy prioritisation, investment, oversight/regulation and production. The apparently universalising ‘consensus’ acts to exclude alternative perspectives and practices in agriculture, suggesting that there is only one vision for a new green revolution in Ghana, when of course there are many.
Participation, Commercialisation and Actor Networks: The Political Economy of Cereal Seed Production Systems in Ghana

• In Ethiopia, by contrast, the state is much more present, even in so-called private sector activity. While there are contrasting interests in federal and decentralised state level activities, it is state-driven imperatives that define what private sector activity is able to happen and where. With the suppression of non-sanctioned entrepreneurial activity, much is driven underground, operating outside the formal economy. This is important, but it is difficult to trace its overall impact. However, centrally-directed, state supported efforts – including numerous campaigns, special projects and programmes - confront numerous blockages – in supply and distribution of seed for example – undermining efforts to extend the green revolution. Farmer-based seed multiplication efforts are seen as an important route to resolving this. These involve local production and local marketing, aimed at boosting production in a locality, linked to and supported by quasi-private, yet state controlled, seed enterprises. Inevitably these efforts too are bound up in a political economy which depends on the relative influence of centralised directives and regional autonomy, as well as the balance between state-directed control and private entrepreneurship.
The Political Economy of Ethiopian Cereal Seed Systems: State Control, Market Liberalisation and Decentralisation

• In Kenya, a range of green revolution initiatives build on a strong private seed sector and a well developed and extensive network of small-scale agro-dealers. Kenya in many ways is the ‘poster child’ for the new green revolution, and its public-private alliance generating local, rural entrepreneurship. Agrodealers however are spread unevenly throughout Kenya, and are inevitably concentrated in the higher potential agricultural areas in the centre and west of the country. Agrodealers are provided with a range of support, including training in business management through NGOs, including CNFA. However, in order to run successful businesses they must rely on a diverse commercial base, offering a range of non-agricultural products. Making a business out of selling seeds and fertilisers is risky, and especially so in the dryland areas where demand is low and variable. Links with particular seed companies is essential and central to these enterprises. The changing structure of the Kenya seed industry and the entry of large multinational players is changing this dynamic This acts to narrow the choice of seeds and crop types to farmers in all areas. With the biosafety bill approved, the prospect of GM crops being pushed through agribusiness networks is a major emerging issues, with questions as to whether agrodealers have the capacity to provide local regulatory control of new seeds. Farmers’ own informal seed systems must operate in parallel, and particularly poorer farmers in more marginal areas must rely on informal systems as their primary source of seed.
Can Agro-Dealers Deliver the Green Revolution in Kenya?

• In Malawi, a series of major subsidy programmes have dominated seed (and fertiliser) supply since the mid 2000s. This has become intensely political, with government wrangling with donors and the private sector over the best approach. The subsidy programme is a major drain on government resources, and a significant focus for donor and NGO investments too. Although in the last year, there has been some reduction in subsidies (e.g. to tobacco growing), the core focus on maize and food security remains. This is because the political fortunes of the government are intimately tied up with the continued support for subsidy programmes, as the previous two elections have been fought on this basis. Over time, and pushed by the donors in particular, there has been a greater incorporation of the private sector in the delivery of the programme. Major seed companies – notably Monsanto – provide seed in bulk and a network of agro-dealers deliver this through a voucher programme. This has proved a major boon both major seed companies, as well as small-scale entrepreneurs. The alliance between the state, the donors and the private sector (both global multinational and very local) is strong. This has excluded alternative perspectives and has had a diversity of indirect effects, including favouring certain enterprises over others (those with capital and able to link up with the large seed houses), certain seed products (hybrid/OPV maize over other seed options) and research priorities (undermining national breeding capacities).
Seeds and Subsidies: The Political Economy of Input Programmes in Malawi

• In Zimbabwe, as part of the relief and rehabilitation programme of both government and donors/NGOs a similar dynamic exists. Again, major input subsidy programmes were rolled out in 2009-10. These were focused on getting improved seed to poor farmers in both communal areas and new resettlement areas. The donors provided funds through NGOs who focused on communal areas, while the government channelled funds through state agents and focused on the new resettlements. Despite differences in implementation strategy, the overall narrative justifying the interventions was the same: there was a major gap in supply of seed and in order for food security to be assured, subsidised (indeed free in most instances) improved seeds should be supplied. These efforts were deemed ‘emergency’ measures, and so implemented in hurry. In most instances they by-passed existing channels for the delivery of seed and relied on those commercial suppliers who could deliver in bulk and fast. For many, the programme has acted to undermine the longer-term recovery of the seed sector, while providing support to a narrow group of commercial interests, and offering a form of patronage to state and NGO actors implementing programmes at the local level. 
The Political Economy of Cereal Seed Systems in Zimbabwe: Rebuilding the Seed System in a Post-Crisis Economy

Emerging issues and questions for Phase II



In Phase II, we will hone in on one set of actors at the centre of the new green revolution: agrodealers. We will reflect on the questions asked below, and aim to look at a number of cases and/or case study sites to gain a better understanding of agrodealers, their social-political position and the way they interact with others in the wider actor networks defining the new green revolution.

Key Questions - and methods

In each case we will take (at least) two sites – at the minimum one high potential and one low potential - and ask (among other things):

• How many agrodealers are there in the area (district, selection of villages) and how has this changed?
• How are they distributed (towns, rural growth points, villages)?
• Who are the owners (social-political-economic-ethnic characterisation)?
• What is their business model (how do the dealerships run, what proportion of business is seed/fertiliser, are they linked to other businesses etc.)?
• How do agro-dealers understand ‘the new African green revolution’ and their role in it (if at all)?
• What seeds are being sold? From what companies? How diverse is the range?
• What subsidy/voucher schemes are being run in the area? How do they work? Who benefits, who loses? What is the ‘leakage’, and where does it go?
• Who runs the shops and what over-the-counter advice is offered? How knowledgeable about input options and agronomic responses are those selling the products?<
• What is not being sold (millets, sorghums, other maize varieties etc.)? And where do farmers source this from?
• What other seed systems operate in the area, and how do they link with the agrodealer networks (e.g. NGO, church, government programmes (free seed) or informal seed systems (farmer-led, or NGO support, e.g. seed fairs)? Through a mapping of flows, how important are different elements for different groups (Sperling seed assessment methodology)?

This would involve surveys (a mix of quant-qual interviews/questionnaires) of both agro-dealers and farmers (sampled strategically to get a range of wealth groups) across different agro-ecological sites, as well as in-depth qualitative case studies, alongside broader reviews of secondary material.


Exploring these questions will be aimed at testing the following hypotheses:

• Agrodealers operate primarily in high potential areas and supply seed commercially only to the relatively well-off farmers
• Agrodealers supply mostly hybrid and OPV maize seed from large companies
• Most farmers do not rely on agrodealers to supply most of their seed<
• Agrodealers service richer male farmers to the exclusion of poorer and female farmers.
• Agrodealerships are mostly owned by elites able to make connections – with government - donor/NGO programmes or large scale seed houses.
• The terms of engagement between agrodealers and seed companies is skewed heavily in favour of seed companies.
• Over time, larger agribusinesses (especially multinationals) are dominating the supply of seed into the formal seed system, reducing the proportion bred locally by public systems
• The variety of seeds available to farmers through agrodealers is declining over time.
• All the above are accentuated and perpetuated by support programmes funded by government and external donors.
• Such programmes provide multiple opportunities for rent-seeking and profit-taking by agrodealers (and other elites)

Country cases for Phase II: outline proposals

While we hope all cases will address these broad themes, hypotheses and questions, each study will be different and adapted to particular contexts. Thus, drawing from the notes presented in March at IDS and the subsequent discussions, the country foci will be:

Kenya A follow up study to the first phase in the same two contrasting sites, going into more depth on the political-social-economic position of agro-dealers in Kenya, alongside the response and perspectives of farmers in the same two areas. This would be complemented by a broader overview using secondary data mapping agro-dealer and business networks across the country.

Malawi Choosing some focused case study sites, this study would go into depth and look at the micro-social and political dynamics unfolding as a result of the subsidy programme. The study would test some of the claims made for the national level in the first paper with local level data. The focus again would be on agro-dealers and their interactions with both commercial seed producers and farmers. The local case studies would be complemented by a review of the national situation drawn from secondary data.

Zimbabwe As part of attempts to revive the agro-dealer network in Zimbabwe, a wide range of pilot projects are being undertaken in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. These include the maize seed voucher pilot project (GRM-DFID PRP), the agribusiness entrepreneur network and training project (CARE), the rural agrodealer restocking project (SNV), the vouchers for inputs approach (SDC), the market linkage and voucher system (Redan), among others (see SNV/FAO report, March 2010). Taking a selection of these – with cases in both high and low potential areas – the study will look at the implementation of (some of) these in practice. This would be complemented by a wider overview of agro-dealers in the country - location, spread, challenges etc. – derived from secondary data.

Ghana Taking some case studies in Brong Ahafo and Northern Region, the research will look at the changing relationships between farmers, seed and markets over time. The major transformation in maize systems from extensive, low input bush fallow to more intensive systems over 20 years will be documented, and the reasons for this. The changing agrarian political economy – and particularly the role of agro-dealers supplying inputs – will be analysed through a series of contrasting cases. Cases may include those embedded in specific agri-business linkages (such as sorghum production linked to beer brewing) or those linked to urban growth (around Wenchi) or other dominated by demographic and environmental dynamics.

Ethiopia This study will focus on farmer-based seed multiplication efforts operating in different parts of the country. A series of cases will be taken, reflecting different agro-ecological and socio-economic contexts, and so different demand for seed. The study will examine the operation of such initiatives, exploring who is involved and who benefits. The links to the commercial sector, including national and regional seed enterprises as well as the informal (illegal) private sector will be traced. The limits of such initiatives will also be documented.