FAC’s Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Team co-sponsored an international conference on ‘Sustainable Seed Systems in Ethiopia: Challenges and Opportunities’ in Addis Ababa on 1-2 June 2011, co-hosted by the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR), in partnership with The Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Some 90 participants took part in the event, including senior officials from national and regional government, academics from national and regional universities, and professionals from international research and development organisations.
Core members of FAC’s STI research team working on the ‘Political Economy of Cereal Seed Systems in Africa’ contributed to the presentations, including
- John Thompson (FAC Secretariat) opening keynote presentation based on the findings emerging from the five-country study entitled, ‘The Politics of Seed in Africa’s Green Revolution’.
- Elijah Muange (Kenya) plenary session based on a Kenya country case study entitled ‘Can Agro-Dealers Deliver the Green Revolution in Kenya?’,
- Douglas Magunda (Zimbabwe) plenary presentations based on Zimbabwe country case studies entitled ‘The Politics of Seed Relief in Zimbabwe’.
- Dawit Alemu (Ethiopia)
- Blessings Chinsinga (Malawi) and Jim McCann (USA) gave presentations to the collected Ethiopian agricultural research centre directors and crop research directors
The researchers presented findings from the project and provided contrasting lessons from their respective studies, which will be produced as FAC Working Papers and a special issue of the IDS Bulletin on the ‘Politics of Seed’ (July 2011). The proceedings of the conference will also be published by EIAR, with support from FAC.
A wide ranging open plenary discussion closed out the second day of the conference. This touched on a number of points raised by the FAC STI presenters, including the politics behind seed R&D strategies and policies that either open up or close down alternative innovation pathways, the potential and limitations of the agro-dealer model, the challenges of establishing a private sector seed sector with a strong role for farmer-led ‘local seed businesses’.
John highlighted how much of the debate surrounding Africa’s attempts to launch a new Green Revolution stresses a narrow theory of change which emphasises ‘market led technology adoption’. This fails to address the underlying political economy of seed policy processes and the different configurations of actors and interests that affect the way cereal seed systems operate.
In particular, it misses out the crucial politics behind the narratives and framings that drive R&D strategies and investment decisions behind this Green Revolution agenda. Drawing on lessons from country case studies from Kenya, Ghana, Malawi and Zimbabwe, Thompson showed that by addressing the politics behind this agenda – and with it, the interests, values and choices that drive innovation – a credible, politically informed debate can be opened up about future options and alternative pathways.
Elijah noted that Kenya is in many ways seen as the ‘poster child’ for Africa’s new Green Revolution, with numerous public-private partnerships promoting a growing network of ‘agro-dealers’. He reported however, that he and his co-researcher Hannigton Odame found that despite claims that the agro-dealer model offers the best approach for delivering new seeds and technologies to farmers, reality on the ground has yet to match expectations. Agro-dealers remain spread unevenly across the country and are inevitably concentrated in the higher potential areas
The changing structure of Kenya’s seed industry and entry of multinational and philanthropic players (who focus on delivery of hybrid maize and fertiliser) are shifting this dynamic further. This approach is acting to narrow the choice of seeds and crop types to many farmers, leading to technological ‘lock in’ – particularly with in the maize system – to the exclusion of other viable options.
Douglas explained that a decade of political and economic turmoil, as well as a period of radical land reform, affected Zimbabwe’s seed system, reducing the supply of quality seeds and undermining regulatory control.
The collapse of the seed system was exacerbated by seed relief programmes implemented by government, donors and NGOs alike, which bypassed the normal market chain. In 2010, aid agencies experimented with ‘market-friendly’ input subsidy programmes to promote uptake of improved seeds and fertilisers, but these also created distortions and became objects of political manipulation and contestation.
He argued that improving the effectiveness of the input programmes and strengthen the re-emerging seed system will require addressing overlapping objectives, improving coordination and increasing accountability and trust among key stakeholders.
McCann’s talk drew on research from both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. He observed that agricultural history and the history of seeds in sub-Saharan Africa are an aggregate effect of individual day-to-day decisions by farmers operating in diverse environments. Farmers’ seed selections are based on a complex of both natural conditions – e.g. moisture, pests, soils – and short-term, season by season farm decisions about labour, potential yield vs. risk and market potential. In the immediate future, international donors and African governments are planning that African farmers will receive their seeds from a global political structure that anticipates, perhaps wishfully, economic, ecological and political stability.
McCann noted that those expectations of agricultural scientists, policy makers and multinational seed companies are the same ones that failed Africa’s farmers at the end of the twentieth century. Thus, he cautioned that the new push to develop and deliver improved hybrid and GM varieties of seed to farmers in complex, diverse, uncertain environments through systems that assume economic, social and political stability may end up repeating the mistakes of the past.
Chinsinga was a critical account of the cereal seed systems in Malawi, in both a historical and contemporary context, with particular reference to the three input support programmes implemented since the late 1990s to date.
He noted that the centrality of the question of food security in the country’s electoral politics in a post-liberalisation context has created a seed industry dominated by multinational seed companies, who offer farmers a very limited range of products, mainly imported hybrid maize which is not always suited to local conditions, while weakening the national breeding programme.
The interests of seed companies, donors and government have, for different reasons, coincided to create a seed industry that serves a narrow set of interests. This includes a network of private agro-dealers which have been captured by urban elites who often only open during the subsidy season then close during the rest of the year.
At the close of his talk, Chinsinga noted that while the dominant players in Malawi’s ‘Green Revolution Alliance’ have shaped the major policy directions of agriculture in the country, this has not always benefitted smallholder farmers. Thus, he reasoned, once these subsidy programmes come to an end, there is a very good chance that farmers will revert to local maize varieties and other crops and many of the ‘suitcase’ agro-dealers will go out of business.