February 2021

For those of us in agriculture, the parallels between the challenge of ensuring equitable supply of COVID-19 vaccine, worldwide, and the longstanding challenge of supplying improved seed to poor, smallholder farmers are impossible to ignore.

Both are biological technologies that require highly specialized knowledge to develop. Both then must become the focus of specialized logistical operations to ensure their supply.

Both technologies hold special promise for their recipients. In the case the COVID-19 vaccine it is the promise of a return to normal life. In the case of improved seed it is the promise of a better, more prosperous life for farmers and the people who depend on them for food.

As the world comes together to ensure supply of the vaccine in Africa and other developing regions, it is our hope at SSG that a thought will be spared for that other biological technology that holds so much promise for the continent’s poor, rural populations: higher-yielding, climate-resilient seed.

A key difference between the supply of vaccines and improved seed is that, unlike vaccines, improved seed can be produced locally. And that’s important, because it needs to be available to farmers every season, at prices even very poor farmers can afford.

Until recently, the idea that African countries could develop viable markets for high quality, certified seed was viewed as far-fetched. But through the collective interventions of several international donors, African governments, and implementing agencies like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) 13 African countries have developed vibrant, growing seed markets. Farmers in these countries are experiencing higher yields and better harvests, allowing them to eat better and market surpluses for improved incomes.

It’s a success story of the past decade that deserves much greater attention than it has received. Because the progress made in those countries points to another idea that has also been hard to imagine: that together we could end hunger in Africa in our lifetime.

The experiences of the 13 African countries now building their seed markets through a combination of public crop breeding and private seed enterprise can be directly applied to those countries who are yet to embark on this journey. SSG and Cornell University have assembled seed systems development plans for 15 new countries. Hence, there is now a road map for making it happen. The discussions SSG has held with the governments and farmers have shown clearly that they are eager to begin.

One of the big lessons the world can take from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we need equity in access to certain key technologies. Equity is at the center of many plans to “build back better”, post-COVID. Let’s make sure those plans include access to improved seed among Africa’s left-behind farmers.


Joe DeVries Ph.D

President, Seed Systems Group

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