Mobile solution defends farmers in the fight against counterfeit agro-inputs
Irene Mollel is a tomato farmer from Arumeru District in Tanzania. She recently learned the hard way that when it comes to seed, the choice of cheap over quality is more costly.
While uncertified seed may cost less, it delivers only a fraction of the harvest that an investment in the certified seed would have guaranteed, with the potential to rake in up to seven-fold profits, compared to the uncertified for the same acreage.
“Although the cost of certified serialised tomato seed looks prohibitive, it has a high germination rate, requires less pest and disease control, produces better quality and when the market is favourable, it fetches a better price,” says Irene.
Many smallholder farmers in Tanzania and the rest of Africa struggle to source genuine seeds. This further complicates their work, which is already beset by challenges, including more frequent and intense floods and drought due to the effects of climate change, limited extension services and external shocks, such as the COVI-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict.
A study by the AECF estimates that up to 40% of agricultural inputs, mostly seed, in Tanzania are counterfeit. The report attributes this to systemic challenges, including inadequate regulatory frameworks, undercapitalised seed producers, poor policy implementation and the crowding out of the private sector by the public sector.
These are some of the loopholes being exploited by rogue traders peddling counterfeit agro-inputs at ridiculously low prices. This is worrisome in Tanzania, where agriculture contributes 29.1% of the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and directly supports 75% of smallholder farmers. A lot more needs to be done to deliver quality seeds and other agricultural inputs to farmers.
Technological innovations that ride on mobile penetration in Tanzania, currently estimated at 80%, are taking the lead to provide answers to the seed counterfeit challenge by helping farmers identify quality seeds to purchase, riding on mobile penetration in Tanzania.
One such innovation is mPedigree, an input verification service. Seed buyers can scan or key in the code on the packaging into their phones to get an instant text reply confirming whether the packet is genuine or not. mPedigree works with seed manufacturers during packaging, to serialise a unique 12-digit code, which when scratched and texted to an SMS short code 15393, provides farmers with key product information, including brand details, pack size, lot/batch number and expiry date.
“The mPedigree innovation uses serialised labels to verify seed authenticity and could energise and transform the fight against counterfeit agro-inputs through the integration of technology in seed quality regulation,” says AECF’s Head of Agribusiness, Sebastian Wanjala. He adds that the investment has catalysed changes in the marker systems, opened up partnership opportunities and facilitated strengthened partnerships around innovation.
AECF’s investment in mPedigree under the Tanzania Agribusiness Window, is a US$38 million programme funded by the Foreign Commission Development Office (FCDO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The AECF recognised the huge potential to effectively tackle counterfeits over the other initiatives that include ordering pre-packaged packets/pouches abroad to reduce counterfeit packaging, responding to farmers’ reports of fake seeds immediately to secure and maintain trust, and reporting incidents.
There has been a systematic increase in the number of farmers purchasing their seed from registered seed traders and verifying quality using the SMS short code. There was a 27% increase in farmers who bought seeds and scratched the 12-digit code for verification between 2019 and 2020, and a further 16.4% increase between 2020 and 2021.
However, as mPedigree takes root, it is worth remembering that innovations cannot effectively tackle the challenge of counterfeits in isolation. It also requires the support of authorities to respond swiftly in instances where seeds are flagged as counterfeit and to arrest the counterfeiters as soon as they sprout. This helps support seed quality supply, crop yields, drive greater innovation and livelihood improvements for smallholder farmers in the country.
Maintaining seed quality creates greater market confidence and safeguards seed producer innovations – essential steps to dealing with demand challenges, especially during planting seasons.