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New study co-led by DEV's Dr Shawn McGuire reveals markets that could provide African farmers with vital new crop varieties

A major new study by the University of East Anglia and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has found that small, family farmers in Africa purchase more than half of their seeds through local markets and other informal sources - neglected outlets that present a major opportunity for improving access to better crop varieties.

The ability to provide access to new seed varieties is crucial to dealing with climate, nutrition, and other production challenges in a region where food security remains a major concern. The research challenges conventional thinking and policy around food security, in particular the priority given to ‘formal’ channels, such as commercial markets or community-level projects, as the main way to supply farmers with new crop varieties.

The study, led by Dr Shawn McGuire of UEA’s School of International Development and Dr Louise Sperling of CRS, is published today in the journal Food Security. It examined some 10,000 seed transactions across five African countries and Haiti. 

The researchers found that, contrary to conventional thinking, most smallholder farmers in Africa - the continent’s dominant producers who typically cultivate crops on about a hectare or less of land - are not reliant on seeds saved from year to year. Instead, some 55 per cent of seed they plant a year is purchased, mainly from local markets or from fellow farmers, yet these ‘informal’ channels are ignored or actively undermined by policy and practice.

Local markets were found to be particularly important for legumes, accounting for 64 per cent of seeds for crops like beans and cowpea, which are an essential source of protein and other nutrients. In contrast, a relatively small proportion of transactions - 2.4 per cent overall with no country higher than 17.4 per cent - involved ‘certified seed’ produced by private sector companies and sold through farm supply stores or agrodealers.

“Innovations in crop science will be of little value to smallholder farmers if they are not matched by innovations in seed delivery,” said Dr McGuire, a senior lecturer. “We need to see the formal sector more firmly focused on serving the needs of smallholder farmers and it is especially important to realize the potential of local markets as a source for seeds. Our research shows that local markets are used by most farmers and especially the more vulnerable. Yet local markets receive almost no attention from development professionals or governments.

“There are a range of tried-and-tested approaches for integrating seed channels, such as licensing seed sales through more diverse outlets, enhancing the quality and diversity of seed provided through local markets, or developing information systems to link farmers and merchants more effectively in complex and fast-changing environments. The study’s evidence strongly shows that such innovative approaches urgently need to be scaled up and tested more extensively. They show huge potential to reach vulnerable farmers, and deliver to them the seed they need for food and nutrition security.”

The authors say their findings indicate that supplying smallholder farmers with a wider selection of crop varieties is a significant and untapped business opportunity - for both formal and informal seed sellers.  

This is particularly true in contemporary Africa, where international institutions and national governments are aggressively investing in developing new crop varieties specifically intended to help smallholder farmers deal with a range of challenges. Varieties that soon could be available include beans that can withstand high temperatures, potatoes that are resistant to late season blight, and maize that can tolerate droughts, which are becoming more common due to climate change.

“Our work is significant because it indicates smallholder farmers are far more likely to purchase seed rather than rely on saved seed,” said Dr Sperling, a senior technical adviser at CRS who conducted the research while working with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). “The challenge is that most of their purchases are going through informal channels like local markets, which don’t have access to many of the new crop varieties that could help farmers improve nutrition and adapt to climate change.”

Dr McGuire and Dr Sperling believe formal seed producers and sellers would be wise to embrace the smallholder farmer as their core customer and that seeds for new crop varieties would reach more farmers if they were available in supermarkets and small, “mom and pop” stores that often are more common in remote communities than agrodealers.

The study is the first to extensively quantify, crop by crop, where farmers obtain seed. For example, the authors found that even in countries where agrodealers owned more of the market - they accounted for 11.6 per cent of sales in Kenya and 17.5 per cent in Malawi - most of the sales involved only a few crops, chiefly maize in Kenya and maize and cotton in Malawi. Meanwhile, agrodealers supplied less than one per cent of legumes and vegetatively propagated crops like sweet potatoes.

The study’s conclusions were drawn from extensive interviews with farmers in Kenya, Malawi, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Haiti that were conducted as part of the Seed System Security Assessment (SSSA). Launched in 2008, the assessment is part of, a collaboration involving CRS, CIAT, UEA’s School of International Development, the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It now contains extensive information on over 10,000 farmer transactions across ten different seed sources for 40 different crops. 

The study ‘Seed systems smallholder farmers use’, Shawn McGuire and Louise Sperling, is published inFood Security on January 20, 2016.

Image: Louise Sperling


The School of International Development has launched this video to promote the research on seed systems: