seed Quality Seeds

Quality Seeds, Quality Yields

The Crucial Role of Improved Seeds in Ethiopia

Quality seed is a key input for improving crop production. Improving the quality of seeds can increase the yield potential of any crop significantly and thus, is one of the most economical and efficient inputs to agricultural development. However, the seed system in Ethiopia is filled with complex organisational and operational setups that partly thwart the country’s prospect for agricultural revolution. Ethiopian seed system has been confronted with several challenges such as limited capacity of agricultural research centres and distribution channels. Failure of proper utilisation of the already available improved seeds is also a major problem. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale sat down with stakeholders to get to the bottom of the issue and understand what the government is doing to improve the lingering seed system in the country.

For an agrarian based economy, access to improved and quality seeds is a critical prerequisite to uplift agricultural productivity. This is important to foster industrialisation. However, a close look at the sector in Ethiopia reveals that the sustainable supply of improved seed, among other things, eludes the country.

This is exemplified by the demand and supply conundrum of improved seed. In Ethiopia, close to 12 million hectare is cultivated by small-scale farmers. Last fiscal year, 8 million quintals of improved seeds, which yields significantly higher than the regular one, was needed. However, only 1.5 million quintals, which was used to cover less than10Pct of the total land harvested in the year, was distributed.

“Covering half of the harvested area is challenging; let alone the total area with improved seed,” says Tedla Pascal, public relations officer at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). “We do not even know how much of the available improved seed is properly used partly because of the remotnes of most agricultural areas which challenges the supply and follow up of agricultural technologies. This shows that even though agricultural production is increasing, we are [not reaping as much as what the potential of the country offers]”

In contrast to the failure of the government to supply more improved seeds [on top of ensuring the available ones are properly utilised], stakeholders say demand for the input is increasing. “Currently, there is a big demand, but the supply is limited,” argues Tedla. “The amount and variety of improved seed that is released depend on the capacity and choice of the agricultural research centres, not on the demand.”

Samuel Tufa, market development officer at Markos, a company involved in the importation and distribution of vegetable seeds from Holland, agrees. “The demand of farmers for improved seed is fast growing,” concurs Samuel. “Since it can be cultivated in small farm areas, the demand for vegetable seeds is taking off. However, the country cannot address that demand.” Markos has worked in the seed supplying business for the last eighteen years.

Studies reveal that an improved seeds significantly improves production and productivity and, by extension, the sector’s overall performance. Although quality inputs supply and the right agronomic practices are essential for boosting the agricultural sector, the role of improved seed is immense. For instance, many studies reveal that proper usage of fertiliser increases productivity by 20-30Pct while improved seeds can raise productivity by 30-40Pct.

For centuries, farmers in Ethiopia have operated their own informal seed systems. They save seeds from one year’s harvest for planting in the next year’s. Despite this impressive cleverness, the performance of local varieties of maize, wheat, millet, and other Ethiopian food varieties now lags behind the continent. In fact, according to a study entitled ‘Planting the Seeds of a Green Revolution in Africa’ harvests per hectare for major crops like maize can be as much as 80Pct below their potential when informal seed system dominates agricultural sector.

Some Sub-Saharan countries, however, are benefiting by ensuring farmers have much greater access to improved crop varieties. For instance, a survey conducted in 2013 on farmers living in nine African countries found that the majority who invested in improved crop varieties achieved yields 50 to 100Pct above local varieties. Additionally, 79Pct of farmers in Ghana reported doubling rice yields while 85Pct of farmers surveyed in Uganda reported doubling yields from cowpea.

The use of this economical and efficient agricultural input in Ethiopia, however, has been limited. This is because the seed system in the country is filled with complex organisational, institutional and individual operators in the development, multiplication, storage, distribution, and marketing of seed.

Instead of categorising the problems observed in the sector based on each step of the process, a report entitled ‘Recent Development in Seed Systems of Ethiopia’ identifies two problems: low capacity of agricultural research centres and public seed enterprises as well as low level of utilisation of the available improved seeds, which contributes for the poor availability and limited promotion of improves seeds, respectively.

In Ethiopia, agricultural research centres play an important function in the seed system by developing the improved diversities and best management practices, which are then multiplied and distributed to farmers. These include the EIAR, Regional Agricultural Research Institutes (RARIs) and higher education learning institutions (HLIs).

Even though there are 17 agricultural research centres in the country, a lack of finance, lab and facilities as well as researchers turnover due to low salary and benefit scheme have crippled their ability, according to Seifu Assefa, director of Agricultural Inputs Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “The supply of improved seed could not match the growing demand, due to different challenges at the research centres, among others. There are capacity limitations especially at production, supply and distribution level.”

As a result of this limited capacity and due to the growth of the agricultural sector in recent years, there is a huge gap between the demand and supply of improved seeds in the country. For instance, the total annual average improved seed requirement for cereals, pulses and oil crops is over four million quintals, according to information obtained from EIAR. But the annual supply of improved seeds doesn’t exceed one million quintals.

“Researchers’ turnover is decreasing now, since the government introduced better salary and benefit scheme, two years ago, for all agricultural research institutes,” stresses Tedla. “Coupled with the efforts underway to bring together scattered farmers, this will have a positive effect towards increasing the supply of improved seeds.”

In addition to the limited supply of improved seed, agricultural research centres focus only on hybrid maize and wheat varieties that limit farmer’s options to other improved seeds of commercial crops.

Research centres operating under the EIAR have introduced over 1,035 varieties of improved seed over the last 50 years, according to the information obtained from EIAR. Of the total improved seed varieties only a few are in supply.

Not only that, there is also a problem of replicating results achieved in research centres. Productivity of improved seeds for maize and wheat which constitute about 85Pct of the total crop production is a case in point. Productivity of maize with improved seed at research centres is 130 quintals per hectare, while the average productivity at farmers’ level is 34 quintal. Similarly, wheat improved seed productivity is 80 quintals per hectare at the centres and 24 quintals on the ground, according to data from the Institute.

And yet, there are only 60 maize varieties in supply currently, out of 1,067 varieties existed worldwide, although Ethiopia has produced 52 seed standards, based on international specifications.

Seifu says a shift to improved seed is taking place: “Producing improved seed based on farmers’ demand is becoming the main guideline of research, multiplication, production and supply of improved seeds.”

The other institutions in the improved seeds supply chain are public seed enterprises, which have the largest share in the production and marketing of seeds. Consisting of institutions like the Ethiopian Seed Enterprise and regional seed enterprises, they multiply certified seeds in large quantities by taking the selected and developed varieties in research centres. However, due to the fact that seed enterprises are expected to meet intertwined objectives-producing sufficient quantities of improved seed for key crops based on government’s priority even if they have less or low return and becoming self sustainable business – they have been facing dilemma.

According to the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) close to 60Pct of these enterprises’ production is limited only to wheat hybrid, which is less profitable because of its high seeding rate and low multiplication rate. In addition, these enterprises have small profit margins because affordable and equitable distribution of seed is the primary priority of the government.

Supplying and marketing of released hybrid seeds from the research centres to farmers is also marred with challenges. After released from research centres, the seed has to be multiplied and distributed to farmers. Regional and federal government seed enterprises comprise more than 60Pct of the seed distributors, while the rest is through cooperatives, which receive seeds from the enterprises.

On the other hand, the private sector distribute less than 15Pct, compared to 40Pct and 20Pct in India and Tanzania, according to the ATA’s 2016 report. “Ethiopia’s seed regulatory system is currently at a nascent stage and constrained by bottlenecks including inadequate logistics, limited infrastructure, and insufficient human resource capacity,” according to the report.

The ATA has started piloting cooperatives based seed distribution few years ago, ending the former longer market chain. The Agency was established under the Ministry of Agriculture to forward solutions for the bottlenecks in the sector. So far it has prepared soil and climate mapping, mechanisation strategy, among others.

According to ATA’s 2016 report, even though there are 285 cooperatives in seed production and supply chain, they cannot meet the standards for accreditation As a result; cooperatives could not supply more, due to a lack of warehouses. This is despite the fact that the government aims to increase hybrid seed supply to reach 3.5 million quintals by 2020, much higher than what it was last year – 1.5 million quintals. The plan for the year was 2.7 million quintals.

Tamirat Assefa, monitoring and evaluation officer at GIZ, a German development agency, that takes seed varieties in quota and distributes them to farmers, says they are not getting enough improved seed. “Resources such as finance are needed to produce and supply seed. There is also a lack of capacity and experience. The alternative is to [assist farmers] multiply seed by themselves, which might take ten to fifteen years.”

According to Tamirat, hybrid seeds supply from research centres is also narrow when they prefer to multiply by themselves. “The research centres need more facilities and we are working to link them with Germany-based companies,” he said. GIZ is currently running a project to help cooperatives so that their products get brand in the market.

In order to support public owned institution in the seed supply chain, experts advise the government to encourage the involvement of the private sector both local and foreign. Insiders also argue that the private sector shyness come from the small profit margin that could not allow market oriented company to make reasonable profit.

“There are no private companies in the seed multiplying business; those in the supply line are also few,” argues Yitbarek Semeane (PhD), seed programme director at ATA. “Government needs to create the right conditions that support entrepreneurs, practically.”

According to Yitbarek who was himself a seed multiplier and producer, before he closed his business to join the ATA three years ago, the local private sector is not developed yet and the business environment is not attractive for multinationals. He says, the country has no capacity to protect its original seed, if they come. “government needs to focus more on regulating and see private and public enterprises equally. More seed is being expired [in the hands of] cooperatives.” For him, the first problem stems from the government’s big ‘player role’, and secondly the decentralised policy approaches on the issue.

Experts and stakeholders recommend that special focus is needed in building capacity of the research centres, and further specialise them on crop varieties that are highly needed by agro processing companies as well as exporters.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn recently laid the cornerstone for Agro Industry Park, to be built with ETB1.5 billion in the State of Amhara. This first-of-its-kind park is one of four that the government plans to establish within the next few years, with ETB10 billion to house foreign and local companies that source raw material from the agricultural sector and add value. The plan is to make Ethiopia a light manufacturing hub in agro industry by 2025. These parks, however, need quality and continuous supply of raw materials from the agricultural sector.

“We will start attracting processing companies to join the park in the next September,” said Mebrahtu Meles (PhD), state minister for Industry, while launching the first of its kind premium exhibition, dubbed ‘agro food plast pack’, on February 3, 2017, at Millennium Hall. Processing and packaging companies from German and France have shown their interest to join the park while during the exhibition over 60 companies from 14 countries have participated.

Despite the high hope the government has, other industrial parks that are operational, which are dedicated for textile and leather industries are challenged by the lack of quality cotton as well as skin and hide supply, which forced them to import raw materials.

Even though more companies have joined the textile industry, there are no local quality cotton hybrid varieties. Despite the annual 5,000 quintal of cottonseed demand, the local supply is limited to 1,000 quintal. As a result, the parliament has amended the strict proclamation that governs genetically modified organisms last year. Not only that, Ethiopia currently imports 50Pct of inputs for the leather production.

Stakeholders stress that productivity of the agricultural sector is far behind the demand of industries, which happens due to lack of coherence linkage between the agricultural productivity and industrialisation.

“Due to the demand of different and unique varieties of hybrid seeds, companies need to work together by providing the main breeder seed of the industrial commodities for farmers,” stresses Seifu. Some companies have already started to do so. For instance, Diageo provides hybrid barley seed for the farmers that are in agreement with the company to sell barley. Heineken also does the same.

To boost the production of industry related agricultural commodities, the ATA has introduced Agricultural Cluster Commercialisation (ACC) system, which replaced the previous value chain strategy. This system, in which farm areas stretched up to 20 woredas are clustered together. The system is currently at trial level.

In addition, the remotness of most farm lands existed in Ethiopia has prevented proper distribution of the already available seed, according to Tedla.

The new ATA’s system allows remot and concentrated small scale farmers that produce similar products to access agricultural inputs and get support by creating clearly defined supply chain. For this purpose, 10 crops are selected, which are implemented in pilot project on 26 clusters. Out of the 16 clusters planned in the State of Amhara, six of them, which stretch over 1.7 million hectare, will grow sesame, along with six other crops, according to information obtained from the ATA.

Saifu says in order to facilitate the implementation of the ACC as well as other strategies, recently, a National Seed Council has been established, which has a technical committee under it: “There are huge implementation gaps in the agriculture sector and the committee identifies, takes fast intervention and direct resource in coordinating and solving the problems.” EBR


5th Year • April 2017 • No. 49

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