Closing the gap between seed companies and East African farmers

April 05 , 2016

The objective of the first edition of the Access to Seeds Index is to encourage seed companies to step up their efforts and bridge the gaps between the seed industry and smallholder farmers in eastern Africa. Following the recent publication of the report, executive director Ido Verhagen speaks with about its findings.

Smallholder farmers are considered a vital cog in the wheel of tackling global food security, but their productivity is often severely hampered due to insufficient access to quality seeds of improved varieties.

This is one of the reasons Access to Seeds, an independent organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Dutch government, has put together the Index examining ways in which the industry can help solve this challenge. It’s the first to assess regional companies alongside global peers.

“We want to answer the questions ‘where, how and what’ can seed companies do and we try by focusing on global crop seed companies and vegetable seeds companies,” says Verhagen.

“We identified four regions based on food challenges, where there is agricultural potential and where do those smallholder farmers live and we came up with parts of Latin America, western and eastern Africa and south and south-east Asia.

“For the global companies we evaluate what they are doing in those four regions with small farmers and for the regional side, we zoom in on one region and for this first edition, that is eastern Africa.”

The Index, a 200-page comprehensive report, is not just about availability – it also focuses on affordability, suitability and capability which is about educating farmers on best practices.

Verhagen says seed companies that want to be successful in this market have to take a broad approach.

“You can’t just put your seeds on the shelf and think that will be it.

“We also found that if you look at vegetable seeds specifically, the regional companies in eastern Africa play a vital role because they have activities that are neglected by global peers such as dedicated programs for women farmers, really reaching remote villages but also breeding for local crops.

“There is one clear leader for vegetable seeds which is East-West Seeds which for many wasn’t a big surprise because for over 30 years they’ve really dedicated on a model focusing on smallholder farmers.”

East-West Seeds is based in Thailand, operated with a Dutch management team, has 15 Research & Development establishments in seven countries and exports to more than 60 countries, serving more than 18 million farmers around the world.

East-West CEO Bert van der Feltz says he is ‘grateful’ to Access to Seeds for putting smallholder farmers at the center of the debate.

“The Index is an important barometer of the seed industry’s impact on smallholder farmers. They have been the driver of our business since East-West Seeds was founded in 1982,” he says.

“It is important to assist them because they are the key to improving worldwide access to nutritious food, and they contribute to economic growth.

“When we do this, we achieve several goals at the same time; the farmers’ income increases, consumers have access to high quality vegetables, and we build an attractive and profitable seeds business.”

Verhagen says East-West Seeds is active in a broad range of areas including strategy, stakeholder engagements, breeding programs, solid distribution networks, as well as offering insurance and loads and capacity building.

“At least other companies can learn from it, but by nature companies differ. Not everybody has to become an East-West Seeds.

“Our objective is to encourage the seed companies to step up their efforts. You can have some pressure from groups or the media but companies really look at each other so when they see that one competitor is moving on those emerging markets, that might be encouragement to do more.

“Of course it’s nice to be at the top but I’m happy that for almost all companies in our list we have identified some strengths; some have strengths in capacity building while others have strengths in breeding.”

While East-West Seeds outperforms its peers with its smallholder-centric model, Syngenta and Bayer rank second and third respectively. Bayer is a ‘steady top three performer but does not lead in specific areas’, while Syngenta scores highly in governance & strategy.

How difficult is it to encourage seeds companies to step up efforts and to convince them there is agricultural potential in regions like eastern Africa?

“This is a very business minded industry and if they (seed companies) see an opportunity, they go for it. For some companies the Index will be a wake up call and I hope they start to realize the potential.

“Internally it will start a discussion that companies have something to offer and they will ask themselves ‘why are we not contributing?'”

But it’s not just about the seed companies alone, Verhagen says, they need a good business environment, market opportunities and support from governments.

“The Index is a base for discussion and to show people what is happening. One company told me that they are really happy because it’s 200 pages of fully benchmark information, so they can learn from it.”

The full report looks at more than 25 vegetable crops including broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, gourds, green beans, spinach, tomatoes, leek, lettuce, okra, pumpkin and melon, as well as local vegetable crops like the amaranth, crotalaria and the spider plant.

“When we started this I remember someone saying ‘what are you going to measure because global seed companies will not go to smaller farmers’ but that is not true. Based on our findings they are going to those regions but it doesn’t mean you can get good seeds from around the corner.

“There may be smallholder farmers in eastern Africa with small margins, but there is a lot of them. Put them altogether and you can make a good profit.

“With urbanization, especially around the cities, there is a huge market for vegetables.

“Some companies have said that providing education and training support is not their cup of tea, governments should do it. But companies who show leadership know that if they want to open these markets and want to create a new customer base for the future, they have to be active in capacity building otherwise it will not work.” 

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