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New seeds-tracking platform renews hope of better profits

Dr Edward Mabaya talks about the African Seed
Dr Edward Mabaya talks about the African Seed Access Index. PHOTO | COURTESY  

Seeds are indispensable commodities in sub-Saharan Africa, especially since the majority of its populace rely solely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Traditionally, seeds were easy to access as they were passed down from one generation to another. After each harvests, families set aside a portion of their produce for preservation as seeds -to be used in subsequent planting seasons.

Such informal systems have increasingly become unpopular, following the advent of high breed varieties sold by seed companies. These seeds come with desirable traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance and the promise of bountiful harvest.

The modern seed sector comprises of many players who have invariably created a gap between seed breeders and their intended beneficiaries - farmers. Agricultural experts note that African nations like Kenya need to have a vibrant seed sector where all players are able to perform their roles effectively.

In a bid to tackle these and other problems facing the sector, The African Seed Access Index (Tasai), a new online platform has been developed. The recently-launched platform provides a one-stop destination for tracking the performance of all seed sector players in various countries.

The online tool monitors seed research and development initiatives and seed industry competitiveness. It also tracks seed delivery services to small scale farmers as well as prevailing policies and institutions that promote their access to farmers.

“We hope that this portal will enable countries to identify gaps in their seed sector that need to be addressed,” said Dr Edward Mabaya, the assistant director of Cornell University’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD).

Dr Mabaya is also the head of the Tasai project.

The platform currently offers score cards (ranging from excellent to extremely poor) on the performance of the seed sector in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Uganda.

These are the countries where Tasai was piloted but plans are under way to incorporate seed sector assessment reports of 20 more African countries by 2017. The platform is also compatible with mobile phones and can therefore be viewed on the move.

Mainza Mugoya, the policy officer at the East African Farmers Federation (EAFF), told Digital Business that the system will enable Kenyan policy makers to compare the country’s seed sector performance with other nations’ and learn from best practices.

For instance, he added, the platform shows that Kenya is lagging behind with regards to industry competitiveness since most of its seed companies are still dominated by the government. This, he said, acts as an impediment to other companies keen on entering the sector.

By contrast, the seed industries in South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe are dominated by the private sector. A vibrant seed industry comprising multiple players ultimately leads to small scale farmers accessing wide varieties of high quality seeds at competitive prices.

Tasai also monitors the number of novel seed varieties released in a country, a feature that helps stakeholders to track new research and development in the sector.

In this regard, South Africa leads the pack with 221 varieties of maize released over the last three years compared to 35 in Kenya, 28 in Zimbabwe and 12 in Uganda.

“This is an issue of concern in our seed sector which needs to change,” John Mburu, an agricultural economist at the University of Nairobi said.

He attributed Kenya’s poor rating to minimal investment by the public and private sector in seed research and development. Dr Mburu also blamed stringent regulations such as the three-year period required before new seed varieties are released into the country, compared to just a year in Ethiopia for Kenya’s poor performance.

“Farmers in Kenya have to wait longer before they can begin planting newly released varieties. This costs them,” said Dr Mburu.

The online platform is also aimed at enabling countries to benchmark on their seed delivery services to small scale farmers. Tasai for instance shows that while South Africa stands out for having developed a mature and diverse commercial seed sector, Kenya outshines it when it comes to making seeds available to farmers in small packages (less than five kilogrammes).

“The small quantities cost less and this propels farmers to try them out. So other nations can learn from Kenya’s success story,” Dr Mabaya explained.

The online platform also gauges the effectiveness of national seed policies in stamping out fake seeds which impede nagricultural production and dissuade farmers from purchasing hi-breed seeds. Kenya has the worst score on this index.

Dr Mabaya said that Tasai provides investors with an avenue for easily identifying gaps in the African seed sector which they can explore for financial gains. The Tasai score cards are based on extensive research by local experts in various countries, and will be updated annually to reflect changing trends in national seed sectors.

This, Dr Mburu said is “so we can tell each year if local interventions in the seed sector are bearing fruit or not.”

Experts note that the online portal has the potential to boost the performance of the entire seed sector in sub-Saharan Africa. The global seed market is valued at approximately Sh2.73 trillion ($30 billion).

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