Dakar — Senegal's 1994 legislation on seed certification has been hugely influential, inspiring West Africa's harmonized law on quality seed production - yet domestically, Dakar still struggles with staff and equipment shortages that impede quality control.
Quality seeds can mean the difference between a great harvest and a poor crop yield, particularly for small-scale rural farmers who often lack access to other vital agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, motorized farming equipment and pesticides. Seeds are responsible for 30 percent of the harvest, according to the Senegalese Institute of Agricultural Research (ISRA).
"Seed quality in Senegal - and throughout Africa - is a big problem, particularly in the face of persistent food insecurity," said Ebrima Sonko, Oxfam America's country director in Senegal.
"They need it [quality seeds] to survive. If you start with bad seeds, the cycle of bad harvests continues. So if you want to break this cycle of food crises, which we've seen in recent years, good-quality, certified seeds are quite important."
West Africa's 2008 certified seed regulations were in part based on Senegal's legislation, which created rules on seed registration, production, certification and sale.
But experts say the field has encountered a variety of hurdles since the entry of private firms into the sector during the wave of liberalization in the 1990s and the end of the government's monopoly on seed production.
By law, Senegal's government must provide 40,000 tons of certified seeds for the main ground nut crop, out of a required 120,000 tons per year. The rest is sourced from private firms.
This means that the government must then inspect and certify 80,000 tons of seeds, a task it is not up to due to staff shortfall, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"In the agriculture ministry, in general, we have the problem of inadequate personnel," said Tidiane Ba, the head of the Ministry of Agriculture's Seeds Department (DISEM). "As you know, seed certification requires inspection to ensure traceability... We need more highly qualified people, more equipment."
Quality assurance challenges
ISRA is tasked with selecting and growing quality seeds, then distributing them to selected farmers to reproduce. These farmers, in turn, disseminate the seeds to small-scale farmers. DISEM, Senegal's only authorized seed certifier, ensures strict norms are followed.
But Alioune Fall, the director of science at ISRA, said there were difficulties in efficiently regulating the free seed market. "This is due to the liberalization of the sector. Ultimately, it is difficult to control all the players in the value chain."
Fall explained that over the past decade, an evaluation system to determine the quantity of seeds needed each year has failed. "What we do is we base our production on what we produced the previous year for all the varieties," he told IRIN. "We don't know what the exact demand is."
"In order to have seed certification, you need to have rules and regulations," said Joe Devries, the director of the Africa Seed System Programme and Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). "It's a big logistical operation. You are looking at having to run a big service, such as an agency of the government, which the government has to pay for."
Many African countries have begun implementing seed certification. The process comprises qualitative and quantitative criteria such seed purity, correct labelling, having at least a 90 percent germination rate, and being pest- and disease-free.
The Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) says that seed certification is a complicated process that requires significant manpower and equipment as well as industry and field staff training.
Mama Touré, the project coordinator of FAO's Integrated Support for Food Security and Nutrition programme, said that Senegal needs fresh legislation to include other institutions in the certification process.
"The Ministry of Agriculture could and should give permission to private entities to do it [seed certification] on their behalf," she said.
The Ministry of Agriculture also needs to increase awareness campaigns, teach farmers the importance of quality seeds, and up their research efforts so as not to certify the wrong seeds, said Oxfam's Sonko.
"Many times, during a drought for example, when there are no local seeds available, governments will bring in outside seeds, which they think are superior because they come from other, often more developed, countries," he said. "But in reality, often times these seeds haven't been shown to grow in the conditions you face here [in the Sahel]. So halfway through the season you realize the seeds are bad, but it is already too late."
Sonko said that one way to avoid this - and the problems related to seed certification in general - is to teach farmers how to use their own indigenous seeds.
"We're not ruling out seed certification, but there are alternatives," he said. "Sometimes the best way of getting quality seeds is preserving your own seeds by looking at your farm, finding an area that looks best, and then harvesting those seeds to plant the next year."
While this method can work well, particularly when using indigenous seeds that have thrived in a community for generations, there still needs to be a certification system in place for those times when a farmer needs to purchase seeds, experts say.
"Some have advocated for doing away with seed certification," said AGRA's Devries. "What you need is to have a strong market system so that if a farmer buys seeds and they don't germinate the seller should be liable."
Devries said that this is where the government can step in, to work alongside the private sector to ensure that the farmers are protected from fraud.
"People got used to the idea that farmers in Africa are used to subsistence farming and low yields," he said. "There is an answer to this problem. [With seed certification,] food shortages can become a thing of the past in Africa."
According to Ba, the Ministry of Agriculture understands the importance of quality seeds to a viable agricultural sector. He said that they are currently working to address the staffing problems and improve Senegal's seed certification process, but still require more resources.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]