Going beyond a wish and a promise

I once encouraged smallholder farmers in Central Uganda to start using improved certified bean seed sharing with them the added benefits of bumper harvests and the possibility of better incomes.

A large number of the farmers bought into the idea despite knowing that the cost superseded their modest budgets supporting one another to pool their resources -if only to ensure that they would not be left behind. This was a first for most of them – taking the leap of faith to escape poverty by graduating from subsistence farming to commercially oriented farmers. I will never forget the excitement on their faces as they supervised the loading of the truck with the newly purchased certified seed bought from a seed company I had stumbled upon and readily facilitated a deal between them and the farmers. I truly felt like a miracle-worker, carefully ensuring my farmer partners were on board and that this move would translate into a significantly increased harvest. I was just as excited as they were and I thought I smelt the sweet smell of success that looked unmistakably like tangible impact figures to incorporate in my report for that season. Or so I thought…

Two months later, the most dreadful nightmare unfolded. Forget the impressive impact milestones and the graduation from poverty. The complete opposite was manifesting itself. It turns out that my farmer friends purchased “fake” seed. It not only disappointed in the yield, it was also a bunch of mixed varieties of beans!

The farmers were speechless to say the least. In addition to the total loss on their investment, they incurred an additional cost sorting out the bean varieties because their contract with the buyer had specified a single variety! It was even worse than the outputs they were used to receiving from recycled seed saved from their previous harvests. I am still haunted by the disappointment that the farmers expressed.

When the contract buyer/trader turned them down after it became apparent they could not make up the minimum volumes of the single variety she had signed them up for. I could not blame her as she too had an order to deliver.

This unfortunate encounter left them with beans that were too costly to profitably sell on the open market, and too costly for them to retain for home consumption. We were all stuck, and I went on a wish trip. I wished I had been more prudent with the due diligence on this seed company. I also wished I had understood the pressures faced by seed companies in a world of heightened demand for improved seed, but with limited capacity to supply. I also wished I had known how to support them to better meet this demand in a way that challenged them to grow, together with their clientele without “cutting corners”.

In my quest for solutions, I have some hope in one. I dare say I am excited by the prospect. Our new agribusiness competition known as Seeds for Impact, targets companies that produce and distribute improved seed to farmers. AECF, together with AGRA and Syngenta Foundation are challenging seed companies in Africa to come up with innovative and efficient ways of getting “real” improved seeds nearer to the farmers, at affordable prices.

I feel that we are making a good contribution in dealing with this daunting issue of fake seed, which has spiraled many farmers back into poverty. The selected companies will receive grants and concessional loans to scale their innovative operations to increase access to and availability of improved seed. We will be hosting a webinar to launch the Seeds for Impact competition, on 30th October 2018 from 1200 – 1400 hrs EAT. Register and join the conversation.

For more details on the competition please send an email to seedsforimpact@aecfafrica.org