Access to good seeds is often branded by development experts as the missing link to food security and agricultural growth for many farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Less than 20 percent of Africa’s farmland is planted with improved crop varieties. This is particularly true for tropical legumes like groundnut, common bean or pigeonpea. An innovative groundnut seed revolving fund in Malawi, set up by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in 1999, thanks to USAID and Irish Aid support, and managed by and for the smallholder farmers, has nurtured a solid local private seed industry and boosted the groundnut production.
The young Malawi nation (two out of three people are under 25) is ranked among the poorest countries. The majority of households rely heavily on the climate-affected agriculture sector, and two consecutive drought years prevented any improvements in their living standards. Maize production, the dominant staple food, dropped by a third in 2016 (WB data). Boosting smallholder farm productivity is seen as key to reducing widespread poverty. A better diversity on farms and plates would certainly help livelihoods and nutrition, as was recently concluded in a global nutrition review.
A good step forward would be for Malawi smallholder farmers to grow more nutritious nitrogen-fixing legumes like groundnut and pigeonpea. One limiting factor is that they have little access to quality legume seeds. The private seed sector has not been investing to produce improved legume seeds, and when they want to renew their seed stock, smallholder farmers rely on informal seed channels, from exchange between neighbors or kin to buying grain converted to seeds of doubtful quality at the local market.
ICRISAT has set up an innovative seed revolving fund to reverse this situation by providing high quality seeds of improved varieties in a sustainable manner and at a reasonable cost for Malawi smallholdings. USAID gave the start-up funding for farmers to produce groundnut foundation seeds in 1999. With later support from Irish Aid, this seed revolving scheme has now generated a vibrant local seed industry, producing tons of foundation and then certified seeds of crop varieties that are pest-resistant, drought-tolerant and high-yielding. As a result, groundnut production and incomes rose for many smallholder farmers, like Mary Kumwenda.
Farm laborer and mother of three, Mary joined Madede seed growers club in Mzimba District of Malawi in 2012, where she was trained in groundnut seed production and received 20 kg of groundnut breeder seeds for multiplication. She harvested 222 kgs of basic seed and made a decent MWK 78,000 profit (about $107). The next year, she doubled the surface and tripled seed production thanks to good rains. She made a profit of MWK 321,000, about 1.5 times the national average income.
How Does the Seed Revolving Fund (SRF) Work?
Central to the SRF are the seed producing clubs of 10-15 smallholder farmers which are trained in seed production, management and group dynamics. These clubs are contracted by the SRF to produce foundation seeds, which are bought back at agreed prices. Small growers like Mary receive the pre-basic seeds on credit from ICRISAT, while individual larger farmers, who could also be contracted to multiply seeds for the SRF, have to pay for the early generation seeds in advance.
Foundation seeds are then sold to local seed ventures for multiplication into certified seeds, which are then sold to farmers by agrodealers. Proceeds of the sales realized through the SRF cover the cost of warehouse, seed packaging and transport, and the seed fund is able to engage more smallholder farmers every year.
From 2008, besides foundation seed production, SRF moved to include certified seed production to supply the Malawi government-supported Farm Inputs Subsidy Program. It follows a proper business model, with key decisions on variety choice based on market needs, seed quantity, coverage strategy, seed quality assurance system and seed pricing for SRF sustainability.
For Mary, the groundnut seed revolving fund is a real change maker. The proceeds of her seed activity helped her to make her farming system more profitable. She has gained a sense of entrepreneurship and now feels her family is food secure.
“With the seed sales, I was able to start a small fritter business. I also bought some fertilizer for my maize field. The seed incomes kept my family food secure throughout the year, and we will soon move from our small grass thatch hut to my dream house, with a concrete floor and solid iron sheet roof,” she says.
Mary’s example is not a unique “gender empowerment” story, as the seed producing clubs enroll many women (47 percent of their members are women) — a rightful return, as women have a traditional role of household “seed security guardian,” especially for grain legumes.
As it grows, the seed fund is diversifying into more crops, like common beans and pigeonpea, with local seed companies getting more involved particularly in certified seed production and marketing, as they began to see the value for money in producing quality legumes seeds. Most of these seed ventures are members of the Malawi Seed Alliance, an association created by ICRISAT to manage the seed revolving fund.
All About Seed Trust
Average groundnut yield has been very low for years, as farmers face many constraints from poor soils, pests or drought. Over the years, ICRISAT and the Malawi groundnut research institutions have developed improved varieties like the Nsinjiro, a confectionary type peanut that is resistant to rosette — a very damaging groundnut virus transmitted by insect bites, which stops plant growth and taints the foliage — and high yielding. Community seed systems like village seed banks have increased access to such improved seeds, reaching almost 50,000 farmers over ten years. The seed revolving fund has now scaled up further thanks to its cost-recovery and engagement of the private sector.
One key to success is building a seed trust. However, as in many African countries, seed certification is often ensured by run-down seed certification services with prohibitive certification costs for small seed growers. Under the Feed the Future Malawi Improved Seed Systems and Technologies (FtF-MISST) initiative, ICRISAT has partnered with the Seed Services Unit (SSU), Malawi’s legal body to stamp seed quality labels, to make their seed certification more cost-effective and transparent as well as enlarge their field of action. Training of 166 para seed inspectors has already eased SSU’s work. ICRISAT is currently developing a mobile application that will be deployed by the end of the year and will help plan the para inspectors’ field visits, informing them when it is best to visit farmers. This seed quality traceability app has several ways to improve transparency and trust in the seed certification process. Seeds given to seed growers for multiplication will be tagged with a unique barcode. Farmers that comply with the seed inspection checklist will receive a unique quality certificate, and mobile GPS tracking helps SSU check that seed inspectors are following the right field inspection procedure. Local seed ventures that register for the app could check that quality insurance is traced from start to end, for instance verifying that seed quantities delivered by one grower are credible and correspond to the right variety.
Once a groundnut exporter, Malawi groundnut production collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, and average yields plummeted to around 860 kg/ha in the early 2000s. Now, Malawi is back in the global peanut marketplace, exporting once again to Europe with, for instance, the fairtrade label Liberation Foods by Malawi farmers organization NASFAM. Yields have almost doubled since 2000 to around 1,500 kg/ha. ICRISAT’s seed revolving fund has been instrumental in this groundnut revival.
Mary has no need to worry about her family’s future. Her neighboring farmers will need more groundnut seeds in the years to come, and they are ready to pay for the quality.
To learn more about ICRISAT’s seed systems work in Africa and Asia, read ICRISAT’s Seed Systems: Models and Lessons Learned.
Read the post on the Agrilinks blog.