The most interesting thing about my week in Togo was that about an hour after landing in Lome, I was addressing the Minister of Agriculture and his full cabinet regarding the importance of improved seed for Togo’s farmers, and the mission of SSG. And I’d never been to Togo.
The high-energy Agriculture Minister, Mr. Noel Koutera Bataka, told me after the meeting that our proposal was exactly what the country needed, and that I would not be allowed to leave Togo without agreeing on a plan d’action for developing its seed sector. Later I would learn that he even wants to make Togo a regional seed powerhouse. Great vision!
The rest of the week, which was spent up-country, touring production zones with WACCI-trained maize breeder, Dr. Tchala Noudifule, was inevitably a bit less dramatic, but not by much. Togo is maize country, and I trained and worked as a maize breeder, so I found it amazing that the country literally depends on seed of a 40-year old open-pollinated variety for its food supply. Not a single grain of hybrid maize seed available, in a country that grows maize from north to south, east to west. My honest reaction: How can this be?
Ghana, right next door, is producing thousands of tons of hybrid maize seed every year, as is Nigeria, just two countries to the east. Yet for lack of access to varieties, and lack of knowledge of how to produce hybrid seed, which really isn’t very complicated, Togo has never moved beyond cultivation of non-hybrid maize varieties developed decades ago. It even has a network of agro-dealers. But none of them appeared to be selling certified seed of maize, soybean, rice or cowpea, which are the country’s main food crops. The problem is Togo’s varieties are old and low-yielding compared to new varieties, and most farmers already have seed of the standard varieties, and are not motivated to go out and buy more of the same.
In Togo I met two remarkable seed business people – Julien Amouzou, founder and CEO of Le Paysan Seed Company, and Mentieme Kombate, founder and CEO of a second seed company in the south of Togo. These two seed entrepreneurs, without any prior experience or knowledge of how seed companies are structured or operate, have formed exactly that – vertically integrated, private, seed production and distribution companies. The only problem is that their seed, in the words of Monsieur Kombate, “Ne sont pas competitives (are not competitive)”. So selling the seed is a struggle. My response: Let’s add hybrids to the mix, and watch the farmers react.