Can Sub-Saharan Africa’s plural seed systems survive?

Participants at the Regional Dialogue on Strengthening African Seed Systems held last month in Nairobi sought to address to this question from a political economy perspective. Many participants raised doubts about the ability of scientists and policy analysts to influence seed policy to support more open and plural seed systems because of technological lock-in to hybrid maize and the narrow interests of powerful actors in the sector. It was observed that senior policy makers mainly read newspapers on popular issues as opposed to technical papers. The powerful seed companies and multinationals use their resources to lobby and influence politicians who promote policies that favour their businesses. The non-organised smallholder farmers and even policy analysts find it difficult to mobilise strong political support for investment in a diversified seed system.

Rent seeking and control: seeds in Malawi and Ethopia

From Malawi to Ethiopia, the focus has been on subsidised seed delivery to smallholder farmers. Improved maize seed subsidies are at the centre of politics in Malawi. Politicians use subsidised seed as a rent seeking mechanism to secure farmers’ votes. Therefore, they do not have any incentives to promote the development of a seed sector that is pluralistic.

On the other hand, the Ethiopian government uses the seed system to control food production in the country. This is due to fear that private sector seed merchants will exploit poor smallholder farmers and deny them improved seeds leading to hunger and political dissent. The plight of smallholder farmers tends to become a subject of public debate and political interest during every election cycle. One participant summed it up that as far as the political economy of seed policy is concerned, the farmer only appears every five years, to cast his votes.

DNA fingerprinting

In spite of the lack of political will, scientists at universities and research centres could use technological innovations such as DNA fingerprinting to establish the legitimacy of informal seed systems in the regulatory framework and markets. The Ethiopian institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) has already taken this initiative in collaboration with an Australian Research Organization to track the varieties of maize and wheat which have been adopted in the country.Preliminary findings show that adoption of improved varieties is much higher than reported in published papers. The use of DNA fingerprinting demonstrates that regulatory bodies in Africa could use it to characterise and license seeds from the informal sector. Such technical recognition may help to diversify seed systems and deliver all types of seeds to different categories of farmers in diverse agro-ecologies. But this also requires open and inclusive markets.

Challenging market interests

Getting to those markets is also challenged by the entrenched business interests. A close scrutiny of actors in the seed industry shows close alignment of interests among politicians, local business people and multinational corporations. Some of the political appointees who head public seed companies have business interests in the seed companies they head. Companies which are jointly owned by business people and politicians get contracts to distribute subsidised seeds and relief seeds. The implication is that one cannot rely on politicians to approve policies that create open and inclusive markets if they will result in loss of business for their companies.

If the situation remains the same, what does it mean for millions of smallholder farmers who depend largely on the informal seed system? The regional dialogue called for re-framing of public policy so that it opens up opportunities for donors, civil society, researchers and farmers to investment in plural seed sector development.


Byerlee, D., A. de Janvry, E. Sadoulet, R. Townsend, and I. Klytchnikova (2007) World Development report, 2008. Agriculture for development. Washington DC: World Bank.

(Image: Seed selector, Kenya. Photo: Sally Brooks/STEPS Centre)