Ideas & Debate

High-tech labels come in handy in war on fake seeds


Farmers buy maize seeds in Eldoret. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Planting seasons in Kenya are characterised by high demand for certified seeds against low supply. As a result, shady seed merchants have been taking farmers for a ride by selling them counterfeit seeds. These seeds are packaged in similar packets as those of certified ones.

Although some farmers have good judgement, when it comes to detecting fake seeds it is never foolproof. If the business of fake seeds is allowed to flourish, it will be a threat to the seed industry which each year loses millions of shillings in potential sales.

The Seed Trade Association of Kenya (Stak), in partnership with the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), Agri Experience, and Kenya Markets Trust is championing a new label technology that will allow farmers to ascertain that the seeds they buy from stockists are genuine and certified.

This is an excellent development.  By giving farmers additional confidence in the authenticity of the seed they buy, the labels will help to address the perennial issue of food shortages in the country.

The current maize shortage has necessitated importation of duty free maize and a government subsidy to millers to bring down the price of maize flour.

One daily newspaper cited food prices in Kenya as being among the highest in the world, and stated that Kenyan maize prices are three times higher than the global market price.

Kenyans consume 100,000 bags of maize a day, yet our maize yields are very low, averaging 1.66 MT/ha, compared to 2.5 MT/ha for Uganda and 3.42 MT/ha for Ethiopia, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation statistics. It is therefore not a surprise that we are a net importer of maize, the drought notwithstanding.

Faced with the effects of climate change, Kenya needs to invest even more in ensuring there is adequate food and that smallholder farmers, who account for about 70 per cent of food produced, build their resilience to these anticipated changes.

Kenya must do more to encourage farmers to invest in planting certified seed, which is suited to farmers’ specific agro ecologies and should be able to tolerate the adverse effects of drought, heat, pests and diseases.

Unfortunately, farmers continue to incur losses from poor harvests despite their heavy investment during the planting season. While a number of inputs cumulatively contribute to a good harvest, everything starts from planting quality seed.

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Lack of a mechanism that assures farmers of the potential performance of the seed they buy has discouraged investment in certified seed.
Use of uncertified or low quality seed negatively affects farmers’ productivity even with good soils and adequate rainfall.

Stak (a membership association of seed producers, marketers and other partners) recognises the importance of certified seed and wants farmers to have confidence in the performance of the seed they buy.

To achieve this goal Stak, together with Kephis, has advocated for the introduction of mandatory labelling of all seed packets to ensure the seed is authentic, and certified. 

These new labels are scratch stickers affixed on all seed packets weighing up to 10kg. Farmers can send the 12-digit unique number hidden under the scratch label by SMS to 1393, and within seconds they will receive a message confirming if the seed bought is genuine or not. The text message is free of charge.

With this technology, a farmer can leave the seed stockist’s shop assured that the seed bought has been certified. It is therefore critical that farmers send the code — for each package bought — by SMS before they leave the point of purchase.

By October 2017, all seed packets weighing less than 10kg will be required to have the scratch labels. This will help in the fight against fake seeds through security features that allow for deactivating of labels should they fall into the wrong hands.

In addition, seed traceability will be easier, and the regulator, Kephis, will be able to stop the sale of expired seed.

Stak members continue to invest in technologies that enable production and processing of superior quality seed.

Stak recognises that increased confidence to invest in certified seed by farmers will improve agricultural productivity in the wake of climate change, and contribute to food security and increased incomes for smallholder farmers.

Duncan Onduu works at Seed Trade Association of Kenya while uNkatha Ngichu works with Agri Experience.