London — African seed companies participating in an initiative to offer high-yielding crop varieties to small farmers have grown to become the largest seed producers in sub-Saharan Africa, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) said on Thursday.
Nairobi-based AGRA, which runs the seed programme, said in a report that 80 small- to medium-sized African seed companies it works with in 16 countries are on track to produce around 80,600 metric tonnes of professionally certified seeds in 2014, up from just 2,350 tonnes in 2007.
AGRA's Program for Africa's Seed Systems (PASS) was launched seven years ago to revitalise Africa's commercial seed sector, which was failing to provide African farmers with a steady supply of locally-adapted, better-performing crop varieties, AGRA said. This problem is often cited as one reason why yields per hectare for staple crops such as maize are up to 80 percent lower in Africa than outside the continent, it added.
On top of this, a flagship report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in late March that climate change is very likely to have an overall negative effect on yields of major cereal crops across Africa, with strong regional variability in the degree of yield reduction.
"The rapid growth of local seed companies over a very short time period is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit percolating in communities across Africa and to the pent-up demand among Africa's smallholder farmers for improved, high-yield crop varieties," PASS director Joe DeVries said in a statement.
The countries that have made the most progress are Uganda, Zambia, Kenya and Malawi, according to the report. They now have a "healthy pipeline of new crop varieties flowing efficiently from breeding programmes to local seed companies". Investors are supporting local seed production, while government policies facilitate access to newly-bred seed. Farmers are aware of the benefits offered by the new varieties and can buy them through local agro-dealers.
But overall there is still a long way to go, AGRA noted. "The effort to upgrade African seed systems to the level needed to power a Green Revolution and elevate food production across the continent still faces a number of challenges," its report said.
Barriers include the need for more seed companies and better management skills among local company owners. Governments should make basic seed available from their breeding programmes, and provide tax incentives to encourage investment in seed production infrastructure, AGRA urged.
Farmers need to learn more about how improved seeds can boost food security and incomes. And as banks have been wary of investing in smaller seed businesses, venture capital is required to support their growth, AGRA said.
The crops covered by its seed programme are African staples, including maize, cassava, millet, rice, sorghum, beans, sweet potato, cowpea, groundnut, soybean and pigeon pea. The varieties are selected by local crop breeders for their suitability to African farming environments, AGRA said.
The varieties include the high-yield "New Rice for Africa" (NERICA) developed by the Africa Rice Center.
Ibrahim Abdullahi, managing director of Maslaha Seeds in Nigeria, which sells NERICA among the thousands of tonnes of seed it now produces each year, said the West African country has "the potential to become one of the world's great breadbaskets".
"Giving our farmers access to certified seed for high-yield crop varieties is crucial to fulfilling that promise," he added.
SMALL FARMERS 'BEDROCK' OF FOOD SECURITY
AGRA said growth in Africa's agriculture sector should not come at the expense of small family farms.
"Our seed program has shown that, if given access to the essential ingredients of modern agriculture, smallholder farmers in Africa can rapidly increase food production and become the bedrock of food security for the continent," said AGRA president Jane Karuku.
Of the 464 new varieties developed for African climates and soils in breeding programmes supported by AGRA since 2007, more than 300 are available to farmers via local seed companies, AGRA said. The organisation has also trained and certified more than 15,000 local small business owners to sell farm supplies.
AGRA was founded in 2006 through a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and is also funded by other governments, agencies and international institutions.
The report on the progress made by the PASS programme was released at the Grow Africa Investment Forum in Abuja, taking place alongside the World Economic Forum on Africa.
Some environmental and development groups based in Africa, however, are wary of AGRA's approach.
In September 2012, 28 organisations - representing small farmers and livestock keepers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe - issued a statement expressing concern that policy reforms proposed by AGRA would result in "the privatisation of land, water, seeds and knowledge systems, and create dependency on credit and subsidies, weakening farmers' resilience and food sovereignty".