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Improving quality seed supply - developing viable community seed businesses

Limited availability of good quality seed is a key constraint repeatedly identified by farmers in rural areas in many countries. Open-pollinated seed varieties are in decline in favour of hybrids, which are often less suited to local conditions.

A number of initiatives that have addressed this issue through sustainable local seed production have resulted in improved access to appropriate, affordable and timely seed. Technical training enables seed multipliers to produce significant quantities of certifiable open pollinated seed; however seed production skills must be developed alongside improving connectivity in the supply and marketing chain. Local seed producer groups are at the core of this approach with a focus on facilitating the establishment of sustainable links with national seed associations, seed companies, regulating institutions and gene banks.  In order to scale up impact, emphasis is placed on organisational development, whether that be seed grower associations in Zambia or seed producer co-ops in Ethiopia. This has led to tangible impacts including:

Availability of quality seed has increased: At Lode Hitosa in Ethiopia for example, the local seed co-operative estimates that up to 50% of the 23,000 households now have access to improved wheat, teff and bean seed (sufficient to sow at least 0.25ha). The local Agricultural Office credits the initiative with tripling the proportion of land planted with improved seed (from less than 3% in 2006 to somewhere near 10% in 2008 (equivalent to around 4,000 ha). Yields from improved seeds are double those traditionally used in the area. In Zambia, production from three associations is reaching at least 10,000 households.

Seed growers’ income: Incomes have risen markedly for individuals involved. In Ethiopia and Zambia, incomes from seed growing are in the order of Birr 10,000 (approx £600) and ZMK 2,000,000 (approx £250) respectively: figures are two to three times the average household income.

Food security: Across the regions involved food insecurity reduced – in Ethiopia this also linked to a reduction in food aid. Increased production from a limited area of land was important in this change, with the period that ‘own production’ lasted increasing between two to three times in farming households. This change was attributed to a combination of increased availability of improved varieties (diversity in the range of crops consumed also increased) and increased sales that enabled households to purchase more food.

Farmer Organisation: Seed growers are now organised in viable farmer owned organisations and are making good profits. In Ethiopia, this is further scaled up via work on a regional level with cooperatives in districts (Unions) such that more that 500t of quality seed was produced in 2008. In Zambia, the potential to scale up is being pursued through federations of seed growers associations who are more able to work at policy level to address issues - such as the current bottleneck in supply of basic seed from research stations - which is currently limiting ability for local associations to develop and grow to their potential.

These initiatives focused on integrating the non-formal seed sub-sector with the formal sector and with farmer groups; this has proved critical to ensure the independence and long-term sustainability of rural seed supply systems that have impacts outside the immediate area.

For more information please contact Self Help Africa (

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