How to tackle the challenges for seed system changes?
Farmers (f/m) in Ethiopia and in other low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) often have difficulty getting the improved seeds they need to raise the productivity of their crops or livestock, the climate resilience and the profitability of their business. These seeds may be available in public research institutes or with private breeders, but do not reach the farmers. This was the topic of a high-level multi-stakeholder workshop in the context of the NL-CGIAR Strategic Partnership, which generated lots of insights and new ideas for collaboration.
Getting improved seed and animal seed stock of good quality from breeders to smallholder and family farms in LMICs is challenging. Much good genetic material is available in particular public research institutes including the CGIAR institutes and National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS). Yet due to limitations in the seed value chains and enabling environment improved varieties and breeds are often not (easily) available or accessible for smallholder and family farms. A range of public and private initiatives and investments aim to address these challenges, but the connections between these initiatives and with other seed sector actors can still be enhanced.
Hence, this initiative got key international and regional agrofood sector actors and investors together in a workshop to explore seed systems challenges as well as opportunities for further collaboration. Around 90 Ethiopian and international experts discussed how to jointly tackle major bottlenecks in the functioning of seed systems. Representatives of nine recently started “Seed Systems Development” research projects of the Netherlands-CGIAR partnership also took part, following their internal kick-off meeting in Addis on May 15 and 16, 2019.
A need for innovation to bring better seeds to all farmer groups
In the opening session, H.E. Ms. Aynalem Nigussie, State Minister for Agricultural Inputs and Marketing, Ethiopia, highlighted the need to create a market-driven seed system, improve capacities, strengthen seed sector policies, and improve the utilization of research findings to introduce improved varieties at the right price, quality, quantity and time. She said the formal seed system needs to be strengthened in view of also supporting the informal system that is currently predominant, as “vulnerable groups need to benefit”. Mr. Robert Bertram of USAID commented that researchers need to work in a demand-driven way, based on an understanding what farmers need. He said that USAID supports the ambition of this workshop, given the importance of systemic solutions to bring innovative seeds to farmers. Mr. André Zandstra of CGIAR stressed the importance of working together, supporting innovations, encouraging learning and experience sharing, and building capacities of stakeholders at different levels.
Collaboration in public and private partnerships is key for progress
Various institutions, companies and networks make their contribution to strengthening seed systems in Africa, Asia and other continents. CGIAR, for instance, is modernizing its portfolio of Research Programmes (CRPs) to make sure these deliver the right variety to the farmers; and it works in collaborative structures within CGIAR to address key systemic bottlenecks. Still, a gap remains in the flow from innovation to delivery. This is why CGIAR appreciates the recently started NL-CGIAR research projects, as they address exactly this gap. Further initiatives and partnerships by the private sector, such as the Syngenta Foundation, also play an important role as they can partner with seed entrepreneurs, and help introduce new varieties in countries and encourage other companies to invest. However, for some – often subsistence – crops it is difficult to get the private sector on board. This means a PPP approach is often required to make progress for crops that are less commercially viable.
Collaboration among seed sector actors happened effectively in Ethiopia, as ISSD Ethiopia explained during the workshop. Since 2017, seed sector actors have collaborated in a national seed advisory group to the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources to explore strategic options for transforming the Ethiopian seed sector. This contributed to Ethiopia’s seed policy and to draft amendments to the 2013 seed proclamation (early 2019). ISSD Ethiopia’s lessons from this process are: embrace systemic change, manage adaptively, and invest in social capital. “Sector transformation is a long game, so be willing to make long term commitments.”
Conclusions of the panel debate
A lively panel debate addressed a set of discussion statements exploring solutions at system level:
- Public investment in variety uptake needs to be higher than public investment in breeding programmes. The discussion with participants and panel led to the general recommendation to invest in both breeding and variety uptake, but to do so in an interconnected way – considering country context as well.
- Farmers will benefit more from investment in financial products to access quality seed than from additional efforts in breeding. The audience and panel concluded that it is important to make sure financial products are available to farmers, but that the selection of products should be based on what is best for each user (group); for some it may be credits, for others savings. Likewise, SMEs have their particular needs. The seed sector should therefore make use of current promising examples of new financial products (including savings).
- Varieties from public breeding programmes should be multiplied under exclusive user right agreements with private seed companies. Aware that intellectual property issues are very contentious, the audience and panel concluded that this community working on improved varieties needed to distinguish between types of value chains: for crops with commercial potential exclusive user right agreements may support quality seeds to become available to farmers; in subsistence value chains, introducing exclusivity should be handled with care.
Connecting research, policy and practice in the seed sector
This international multi-stakeholder workshop on Seed Systems Development was held at ILRI Addis Ababa campus. It was organized by CGIAR, the government of the Netherlands, USAID, ISSD Africa, NWO-WOTRO, the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus, subsequent to the CGIAR systems council meeting and an internal meeting on Seed Systems Development with the nine research teams. We thank all speakers and panelists as well as the research teams for their valuable contributions and all participants for their active engagement. We also thank the co-organizing institutions and ILRI for the collaboration in making this event happen.