Reflections: 20 years of improving seed systems in Africa

Jonga Munyaradzi, Seed Production Manager, AATF
AATF delivers diverse, improved and high-quality seed varieties to smallholder farmers in Africa (PHOTO: COURTESY, AATF)

AATF was founded on the premise of delivering to smallholder farmers a diversity of improved varieties and high-quality seeds of their preferred crops that are adaptive to climate change and related biotic and abiotic stresses. This was driven by the fact that at its inception in 2003, millions of smallholder farmers in SSA were suffering low crop yields and even crop failure either due to the use of low-quality seed, or unavailability of better performing varieties.

A combination of factors, including inefficient seed production, distribution, and quality assurance systems, as well as bottlenecks caused by diverse seed policy and regulations in Africa colluded to deny farmers the benefit of quality seeds and improved genetics.

AATF was cognizant of the fact that consistently producing adequate quantities of high-quality seed and delivering them to farmers on time, requires a robust seed system – a complex web of individuals, organizations and institutions involved in the development, multiplication, processing, storage, distribution, and marketing of seeds. Our first task was therefore to establish a robust seed system. We started off in 2005 with holding consultations with stakeholders in the seed sector that were aimed at facilitating the implementation of functional regulatory frameworks to govern the development and deployment of improved varieties and quality seeds along the entire seed chain; and providing product stewardship during seed production and deployment.

In spearheading the development of a functional seed system in SSA, AATF worked with partners throughout the product development lifecycle, identifying products in the research and development pipeline and helping to shepherd them towards commercial release, including product allocation, licensing, seed production, and promotion and marketing.

Our management of quality seed production

A critical component to realisation of quality certified seed is foundation seed, also known as early generation or parent seed. Through experience, AATF found that over 80% of the independent seed companies that service Africa’s smallholder markets have difficulties with production and maintenance of quality foundation seed resulting in a low and inconsistent supply which has a knock-on impact on the production of certified seed.  This in turn is costing farmers and seed companies the opportunity to fully benefit from new improved varieties that are critical to raising farm productivity.

To address this gap, AATF set up the QualiBasic (QBS) Seed Company in 2017 to specifically produce foundation seed to meet the needs of various seed companies and in the process help them improve their certified seed quality and output. QBS is the first foundation seed production company in SSA. In addition, AATF set up ECOBasic Seed Company in 2021 to also specifically produce and supply foundation seed to seed companies in Nigeria and West Africa.

Another essential component to assuring quality seed is the capacity of seed companies, and contracted seed growers. AATF therefore undertakes training of commercial breeders and seed production specialists for the sustainable transition of the improved seed from research to private companies for efficient delivery to farmers. AATF trains the breeders so that they can initiate breeding programmes based on their organisation business priorities as well as the available germplasm. The seed companies further engage in seed production, establishment of demonstration sites and marketing of the seeds to farmers for grain production.  

Proper management of the seed production and management process is critical to success with regards to quality seed availability. To this end, AATF places a major premium and emphasis on certification systems and regulatory standards at all stages of seed production, processing, and distribution.

At the regional level,  regionally harmonized seed regulations are being domesticated to achieve the desired goal of seed security in the region. The on-going AATF efforts on harmonization of seed regulations by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF) will greatly improve trans-boundary movement of seed across countries, and avail more improved seed to farmers in Africa.

The difference, 20 years on

AATF has greatly contributed towards better production and distribution of quality foundation and certified seed in SSA. With support from international donor agencies and partners like UKAID, USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), AATF forged partnerships with over 40 licensed seed companies to multiply, package and distribute high quality certified seed.

Since its inception, AATF has facilitated the production of 37,270  tonnes of certified seed of major staple crops in SSA such as maize, cowpea, rice, soyabean, groundnuts, and beans. These were availed to farmers for cultivation, reaching about 3.6 million  farm-households and benefitting about 22 million people in the 23  countries of operation.

Over the years, the Foundation has worked with 7,034 value chain actors who included seed companies, agro-dealers, seed producers, grain traders, and processors to create market systems supportive of agricultural development. The Foundation strengthened the capacity of 106 companies in 10 countries and 124 extension agents to enhance their speed and effectiveness to deliver certified maize seed to smallholder farmers.

Through WEMA, smallholder farmers in SSA hard hit by prolonged droughts, disease and pest outbreaks that have resulted in crop failures, accessed over 9,300 tonnes of high-yielding climate smart maize seed. Farmers in the Republic of South Africa have accessed over 300 tonnes of transgenic maize seed produced through the TELA project that is coordinated by AATF.

Since it was first reported in Kenya in 2012, the Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) disease spread fast and was threatening maize production in eastern Africa. In Kenya for instance, it had affected up to 300,000 maize farmers by 2013. In the worst hit Rift Valley of Kenya, at least 70% of the maize crop was affected. The disease affected 75,000 Ha in the Long Rain season of 2012, leading to yield losses of between 50% – 100% and an estimated financial loss of approximately US$23.3 million to small holder farmers according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock development, Annual report, 2014. Through the Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) Management in East Africa project, a partnership of AATF, AGRA, CIMMYT and seed companies, the disease was finally contained. Kenya Seed Company for instance, initiated certified seed production and marketing in 2018 where more than 300 tonnes of certified seed of H6506 for commercialization was available in 2020. Commercialization of the second-generation MLN-resistant hybrids commenced in 2020 in East Africa and currently going on.

Ravaged and devasted by the Maruca vitrata legume pod borer insect, farmers in Nigeria now have access to seeds of the first genetically modified Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea, released in December 2019 as SAMPEA 20-T. The cowpea was developed through an AATF managed public private partnership. The release is  very significant for Nigeria’s food security, cowpea being a staple crop in the country and an important source of protein for over 200 million people. Maruca causes the largest preharvest damages, reducing grain yield by up to 80% and lowering quality of the grain.

In Kenya, farmers accessed 35  tonnes of seed of high yielding rice developed through AATF’s Hybrid Rice: Breeding by Design Project. The seeds are produced and marketed by private seed companies that participated in the product development process.

Through QBS, AATF  has supplied 396 tonnes of foundation seed to over 30 customers in 10 countries to plant 15,840 ha of certified seed crops since its inception in 2017.

The Foundation established the Seeds2B project to deliver cutting-edge seed varieties that increase smallholder farmer’s productivity and reduce their vulnerability to climate change through technology scouting, analysis and product registration. By 2022, AATF and its partners had sourced and delivered 12 varieties of soyabean  to 15,940 smallholder farmers in Africa supplying them with 510 tonnes of certified seed. In addition, 27,272 farmers were supplied with 1,092 tonnes of certified groundnuts seed from five varieties. About 6,000 smallholder farmers also benefited from the 150 tonnes of certified seed of two been varieties supplied by licensed seed companies in Africa.

Indeed, it has been a journey that has seen Africa’s seed systems evolving from a largely informal system, characterized by farmer saved seed, into a combination that includes the formal systems, which promote breeding of improved varieties, production, and cultivation of certified seed.