African seed companies outperform multinationals in serving smallholder farmers

KENYA – Kenya’s East African Seed Company and Zimbabwe’s Seed Co. have topped the list of companies playing a critical role in raising smallholder farmer productivity on the continent.

According to the 2019 Access to Seeds Index for Eastern and Southern Africa released by Amsterdam-based research firm, Access to Seeds Foundation, the two homegrown African seed companies have outperformed multinational peers in serving smallholder farmers.

While East African Seed stands out for a broad portfolio including local crops and large network of extension staff across multiple countries, Seed Co. boasts of the most extensive breeding, production and sales network on the continent.

Seed Co. which provides hybrid and non-hybrid cereals and oil crop seed varieties is said to be having the widest geographic reach in agronomic training in Africa.

The Access to Seeds Index analyses of 22 leading seed companies in Eastern and Southern Africa with Thailand’s East-West Seed coming number three on the list, followed by US-based Corteva Agriscience (DowDuPont) and Swiss-based Syngenta.

Other companies that made it to the top of the list include Ugandan companies Victoria Seeds, NASECO, Equator Seeds and FICA Seeds.

“Two African seed companies at the top of the ranking is no surprise, given their deeper understanding of the region and the challenges smallholder farmers face.

But Thailand’s East-West Seed in third place is eye-catching too, because it suggests they are transferring their know-how and experience with smallholders in Asia to Africa,” said Sanne Helderman, Senior Research Lead at the Access to Seeds Index.

“It shows also that these relatively small seed companies are ahead of larger multinational seed companies in integrating smallholder farmers into their business models.”

Investing in seed value chain

The report indicated that companies are operating throughout the region with the highest number in Zambia (thirteen companies) and only five in Lesotho and three in Somalia.

They are investing in seed value chain especially in Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania where eight companies are reported to be having breeding activities.

One of the factors identified to be lagging some company sales is inadequate training and extension services for smallholder farmers.

The report revealed that none of the companies in Angola, Namibia, Madagascar and South Sudan accompanies their sales with extension services.

Maize dominates breeding programs in the region as twice as many companies have active breeding programs for maize as for other important crops, such as dry beans, soybean and tomato.

A lot of focus on maize may mean that smallholder farmers may be lacking access to a broad range of modern varieties of other important food crops, which could play a critical role in addressing food security and nutrition.

Tackling climate change and undernutrition

Another concern raised in the report is the responsiveness of the companies to changing climatic conditions, as majority of crops bred are over three years old.

The companies are increasing availability of modern and productive varieties in small scale farming, which contributes well in achieving sustainable food systems and healthy and diverse diets.

Estimates suggests that the number of undernourished people in the world reached 821 million in 2017 and according to FAO, the number has been on the rise in Southern Africa in recent years and increasing in Eastern Africa.

The seed industry has a vital role to play in helping farmers to adapt to climatic challenges while simultaneously raising production levels.

“The index reveals that African seed companies are successfully serving smallholder farmers,” said Sanne Helderman of the Access to Seeds Index.

“The industry’s reach is however far too low, as COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) reports that just 23% of the smallholders in its member countries have access to improved varieties of major field crops, resulting in low productivity and prompting food security challenges in the region.”

Established with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Government of the Netherlands, the Access to Seeds Index is one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) benchmarks published by the World Benchmarking Alliance. 

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