Why Africa is constantly facing a shortage of seeds

Steve van der Merwe is a seasoned seed breeder and early generation seed (EGS) and production consultant, African Seed Solutions. He was in Abuja last week to build the capacity of seed companies and breeders in ‘planning and forecasting’. On Sunday, the Daily Trust sat down with him to explain the problems with the continent’s seed system. Extract:

LWe are starting your career as a seed breeder in Africa and other continents. What major development have you made?

Well, I’ve been in the seed business for about 30 years. I did my training in South Africa. I have a master’s degree in phyto, selection and genetics and I took an additional course and specialized in phytopathology. I started my career as a breeder, and the first of my seven years of career I was breeding. In breeding, I did a lot of different things.

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I started out as a disease resistant corn breeder. I did that for a while. I did trait integration, where you integrate GM traits into existing lines, I did conversions from yellow corn to white corn, and then within the seed company where I was, I I also started a breeding program where I developed new lines. I realized that I wanted to expand my knowledge and get more information on the business side of the job as well. So, I ventured into production and within the company where I was for 2 years after that, I became what they call “the problem solver”.

My job was to go to a production field and then identify a problem if there was something in the ground or something. I did that for a while. After that, I became responsible for the production of Early Generation Seed (EGS), or parent seeds for the Africa region. And then the seed company approached me to go work in Europe, and so after 13 years I left the seed company and went to Europe. I stayed nine years in Europe and there I did some stuff. I first started as a global head of production technology. I was responsible for implementing new production technologies in our production teams. I did that for a while and after that they asked me to develop a new department called Global Parent Seed Department.

Worldwide, I was responsible for the production of EGS for the cultures we had. For the last two years, in the seed company I worked for in Europe, I was responsible for the production and supply of all commercial seeds for the Europe and Africa region. Then I decided that after 30 years I had had enough of the corporate environment and because I am so grateful for what the seed industry has given me, I decided that I wanted to give back. And that’s why, about two and a half years ago, I started a consulting business. I work with the Syngenta Foundation and my job is to work in African countries with seed companies and help them build their capacity.

How would you describe the seed industry in Africa compared to countries like the United States, Ukraine and Russia, where you have worked?

There are a lot of things that look alike and a lot of things that are different. So let’s talk about what is similar. I would say the climate and the potential of the countries. If I look at many African countries, they have a lot of good agricultural potential similar to what some of these other countries have. However, I would say that the big difference that I see specifically in Russia and Ukraine is the scale of operations. Their field sizes are huge: 100 hectares, (one field), 150 hectares (one field) whereas in Africa, the field sizes are very small and much more fragmented. I would say the conditions in Africa are much more similar to the conditions in India and Asia, or South America, and some other countries, in terms of the size of the fields. And then, the applied technology is varied. If I compare Africa with Europe and North America, Brazil, Argentina and Chile for example, I would say that the application of modern agricultural technology and techniques has not yet really reached Africa.

With knowledge of the seed system in Africa and Europe, what do you think is the missing link in Africa?

I would say it’s the right to continuous improvement within the agricultural industry. I think the big difference is that in the African context, many farmers and organizations within the seed industry are still heavily dependent on donor money and government funds. It’s a good thing and it’s also a bad thing. The good thing is that it keeps agriculture alive and ensures that people can put food on the table and that is absolutely essential. The bad thing is sometimes it also gets in the way of progress and forces people to think differently about continuous improvement.

How will you compare seed companies in Africa to those in Europe and America where you have worked?

That’s a very good question. I think in Africa; I would distinguish between international seed companies operating in Africa and local seed companies. Overall, the general level of applied technology in Africa, even for international seed companies, is lower. In other words, their investments are not that expensive. The amount of input costs they spent here is less than other countries. This is for international seed companies. If I compare international seed companies locally in Africa, with local African seed companies, there is a different technology. Local African seed companies are not as technologically advanced as international companies. And the simple reason is money. They don’t have the funds to invest in expensive equipment. The international seed companies have these funds and most of the time they subsidize what they do in Africa from other regions. I would say that is the big difference. Skill level is another thing. The other thing I would say is that local seed companies are not as exposed to new knowledge from outside, just because they are locally located, while international seed companies tend to bring more technology to Africa and the simple reason is that they have a global reach.

Do you think governments need to invest more in the system?

Yes, of course, the government must be the great facilitator. It must create an environment that allows seed companies and the seed industry to thrive. The way agricultural enterprises operate in African countries is very different from, for example, the United States or European countries, Brazil or Argentina. And the big difference is that in Africa there is a very close relationship between public and private partnerships and the government plays a very big role in agriculture by developing new varieties and making sure that new varieties come to the market and then the seed companies in this public-private partnership play more of a role at the end of the chain where they take the seed from the government and then use it for the production of commercial seed which is sold to the farmers.

The big differences between European countries, North America, Argentina and Brazil is that governments play a much smaller role in the development of new varieties. Large seed companies invest in R&D and the development of new varieties. Their varietal development is much more exclusive. In other words, you develop a variety and only you have access to sell it. In contrast, in African countries, the government develops a variety that is public property, so everyone has access to it and because everyone has access to it, it makes competition later on very difficult because everyone is competing with the same program while in first world countries, your product is unique. This makes it easier to create selling points around the uniqueness of your product.

Many issues are around seed planning and forecasting. Why is this so important to the seed industry?

This is the reason why Africa is constantly facing shortages because the reality in Africa today is that there is a mismatch between demand and supply due to several reasons. But you know, there’s not very good transparency in terms of which varieties, which hybrids, which crops will be in high demand this year or in low demand next year. Thus, the industry tends to be much more reactive than proactive in Africa. So far, in most African countries, I have not found concrete evidence of a conscientious effort by the government or the seed industry to really understand what the real demand is and how the current supply corresponds to this application. It just doesn’t happen.

What do you think of the way seed companies in Africa manage seeds?

I think seed distribution is not bad. In other words, the ability of seed companies, when they have seed, to distribute it in rural areas so that farmers can access it, I think, is acceptable. But if I look at the seed industry; if I’m talking about how you produce it, the agronomy you use, how you manage see after, how you store the seeds and how you transport them, I think there’s a big gap between African countries and other countries like Canada, United States, Ukraine, Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

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