COVID-19 Worsens Africa’s Seed Supply Challenges

Photo Credit: Isaac Masingati, Feed the Future Malawi Ag-Diversification Activity

“Just get us the seed. The rest  we can do it ourselves,” he said, and down the road he went. 

The appeal came from a small-scale rice farmer in Sevaré, Mali. He had just bought a bag of fertilizer and was loading it on his donkey outside an input supply shop. I had told him about a new variety of rice we were testing and asked what other kinds of assistance farmers like him needed from organizations like The Rockefeller Foundation where I worked. He was busy, eager to get back to his field, and didn’t have time for long conversations. But that bit of wisdom, dashed off in hurried fashion 20 years ago, has guided me ever since. 

Like, I suspect, many other agriculturalists working in Africa, when the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic first became apparent, I couldn’t suppress a gut reaction along the lines of: “Oh no, people here are going to go hungry.” My mind sped through a series of images of knock-on effects from a virus spreading to all corners of the continent, concluding that the biggest impact of the disease would probably not be due to the fatality rate, but on millions of people rendered unable to feed themselves because of lost income and a myriad of unseen disruptions to Africa’s food systems. Since then, it appears the UN World Food Programme has come to the same conclusion, projecting “multiple famines of biblical proportions” as a result of COVID-19.

Clearly, we all need to be proactive in these uncertain times — from monitoring food price increases, to mobilizing food aid and ensuring the continent’s farmers are given every possible advantage to ensure the continued production of crops and livestock. Initiatives by the World Food Programme and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in these areas must be given top priority.

But what if this crisis could propel the international community to respond in a way that goes beyond dealing with the immediate needs of hungry people to treat Africa’s lingering food shortages at their root cause? What if, this time, we all really got serious about ending hunger across the continent?

Recent, sustained turn-arounds in farmer productivity in a number of countries by The African Seed Access Index have proved that a more cohesive response to alleviating hunger is possible. Right now, we find in many countries that the average age of some varieties is over 25 years, and in some cases over 40 years. These varieties are unproductive. However, giving farmers dependable access to improved, climate-resilient seed has been central to the progress and has resulted in a decrease in the average age of varieties in farmers’ fields.

Responding to food shortages begins with identifying the most vulnerable people among us, and in that regard, the work my small team at Seed Systems Group carried out last year may prove useful. 

320 million of the continent’s people least able to avoid food shortages caused by the pandemic and other crises live in 15 African countries we surveyed last year. The study was conducted as part of a drive to jump-start agricultural productivity among farmers that have been left behind in Africa’s recent advances in seed systems development. Choosing to look beyond countries such as Ghana, Mali, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, which have received ample assistance and made significant progress, we purposely set out to see what was happening in the least-assisted countries.

Our travels took us deep into the agricultural zones of countries like Chad, Madagascar, Benin, DR Congo, Sierra Leone, and Eritrea (The full set of countries surveyed by Seed Systems Group is Angola, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo Republic, DR Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Eritrea, Madagascar, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo). The experience was both sobering and deeply alarming. We moved through vast landscapes of farm families doing their best to eke out an existence using technologies that had not changed for centuries  and who were getting far less from their efforts than if they had access to improved seed. 

The low productivity rates of these farmers is not due to any inherent inability to produce more, but rather because of a collective failure on the part of the development community to give them access to the most basic technologies of a productive food system: higher-yielding seed, fertilizers, and a basic knowledge of modern production practices. 

Today, as we at SSG work from our homes in Nairobi, Kenya, their mental images are my constant companion, and I wonder: What does it feel like to be facing a food crisis and have no practical means of avoiding it?

Our tendency to be selective when giving assistance for seed systems development in Africa has resulted in an odd patchwork of national supply scenarios where farmers in one country harvest 3 or 4 tons of grain per ha, while those sharing the same agro-ecology and cropping systems in a neighboring country are still struggling to produce the proverbial 1 ton per ha. Our desire to appear astute in proposing more assistance to countries viewed as “worthy” of it has created a moral quandary that is unworthy of our original intentions. Farmers are farmers everywhere, whether or not their governments are deemed worthy.

Now that farmer access to improved seed has proven so effective at bending the yield curve upward in Africa, can we rationally ignore the needs of the estimated 38 million farmers living in the left-behind countries?

Even in normal times, the food situation in the left-behind countries of Africa is precarious. The average rate of child malnutrition is 38%. The percentage of people living in absolute poverty is over 50%. Population growth, meanwhile, averages 2.8%, meaning their populations are doubling every 25 years. Without access to improved, climate-resilient seed, farmers in these countries are locked into subsistence-level farming practices which leave them vulnerable to climatic, social, and health shocks, offering no surpluses to feed those who don’t farm. Meanwhile, urban consumers in these countries have become more and more dependent on imported foods supplied by global food chains whose functioning is likewise under threat by the pandemic.

It is time to end the situation of the haves and have-nots when it comes to improved seed in Africa. The government officials we met with fully realize that there is no future for their farmers without high-yielding seed and fertilizers. They are eager to get started and do it right  not distributing them for free (i.e. not “seed aid”), and not depending on regular disbursements of assistance from developed countries. They have tried both approaches before and watched them fail. They are eager to tackle the harder job of establishing dependable supply chains managed by local enterprises. They know this is working in other countries, and they know they have been left behind.

The good news is that now there is a ray of hope. Working with Cornell University, the Seed Systems Group has created a plan for seed systems development in these 15 countries that can be implemented for approximately $100 million over the coming five years. Under the cloud of uncertainty that is COVID-19, the more daunting question is whether SSG will get the chance to implement these plans, and how to carry them out safely.

It can be done. The new rules of living under a pandemic are teaching us new ways of accomplishing tasks (perhaps not perfectly, but certainly good enough in a crisis): 

  • Local technical staff and farmers can be guided through the basics via messages to their mobile phones, email, and video link;
  • Lectures on how to produce seed and even manage seed enterprises can be delivered electronically;
  • Funds can be transferred to institutions and individuals through digital technologies;
  • Parent seed can be shipped via courier service;
  • Self-employed, village-based agricultural advisors can also serve as messengers on how to avoid COVID; and,
  • GPS and visual imaging technologies can be used to verify activities and results.

This global disease is illustrating the true “essential services” in life, and improved seed is clearly one of them. “Just get us the seed”  it seems so little to ask. Our hope is that perhaps this time around, millions of farmers who have never had the chance to increase their harvests through higher-yielding, climate-resilient seed could finally be given that opportunity.

We have moved to a new location

Shelter Court, 140 Manyani W road , Nairobi