Formal and Informal African Seed Markets

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Since the mid-twentieth century, governments across Africa have been discussing the need to harmonize seed laws and regulation. These conversations, however, have been slow to yield tangible results, and seed markets across the continent remain fragmented. Despite the slowness of policy harmonization, African seed markets have been growing more robust. The continent continues to embrace the small and medium enterprise (SME) seed production model, which has been more successful than the multinational corporation (MNC) approach.

The movement quickly gained ground towards the turn of the century. Kenya had 31 registered seed companies in 2002 – this figure grew by over 300 percent to 104 registered companies in 2012. Currently, Africa’s seed market is estimated to be worth over $1.5 billion, and is forecasted to double in value over the next decade.

Only a formality?

Seed markets are categorized as either formal or informal, and seeds can be either certified or uncertified. Informal seed trade, which typically occurs for uncertified varieties, comes in many forms. Farmers may obtain seed from a previous harvest, family and friends, or a small, unregistered local market. A formal seed system consists of a linear chain of events, starting with plant breeding and variety development, and culminating in a certified seed. “Certified” seeds are those that have been developed by a breeding program, and tested for yield and quality. They typically produce higher yields than non-certified varieties, as they can be tailored for a particular region or climate, made easier to harvest, or genetically modified.

Varying by country, distinct regulations around formal seed systems dictate the specifications and degree of variety between individual plants, as well as standards guaranteeing a level of uniformity and quality. These are all essential for seed producers seeking to establish a viable export market. Any seed marketing that takes place is done through recognized outlets that have received accreditation from a governing body.

Formal seeds go through several stages of existence. They start out as breeder seeds, become foundation seeds, and end as registered and certified products. Breeder seeds are directly controlled by the plant breeder, whether it’s a university or a public institution, such as an agricultural research center. Breeder seeds are the most regulated, as it is at this stage that the specific genomics for the seed are established. Foundation seeds are the progeny of breeder seeds or other foundation seeds, and they maintain the genetic purity of breeder seeds in accordance with the relevant regulatory guidelines. Finally, certified seeds are the progeny of the foundation seed and must preserve the specific genetic identity and purity of its parent seed. This multi-step system, culminating in certification, is the backbone of a formal seed market.

At every stage of the described seed system, there are processes designed to test quality. These include distinctness, uniformity, and stability (DUS) testing which measures different traits among seeds; and value for cultivation and use (VCU) testing, which confirms the seed has advantages over already registered varieties. There are also regulations around research and development practices, seed production practices, traceability, and profitability. These standards and procedures are overseen by a regulatory body, which can be a seed board, a national seed service, or a national release committee.

By assuring quality, a formal seed system both protects farmers and supports the expansion and commercialization of seed markets. The national seed servicer (NSS) and over-arching boards, like the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA), are responsible for most of the processes related to quality assurance. The NSS varies by country but is often a ministry of agriculture. It establishes the system that will govern the seed market, regulating aspects including the delivery of agreements, the supervision of production, the certification process, and the dissemination of information on varieties. An NSS can face a variety of obstacles including a limited supply of breeder seed, ineffective quality control, inaccurate demand forecasts, inadequate marketing and/or distribution, and farmers’ reluctance to pay higher premiums for certified seed.

Informal seed systems, on the other hand, are largely unregulated, and tend to be based on local and personal factors. Farmers or farmer collectives relying on this system source their seeds from a number of places, including prior harvests, family, personal connections, and small local markets. In these transactions, both parties typically know one another. The buyer will often base the quality and validity of the sale on their relationship with the seller. The stronger the relationship between the individuals, the higher the likelihood of good seed—this has been referred to as “social certification.” Another important distinction of informal seed systems is that they do not necessarily rely on cash; rather, seeds can be acquired through bartering.

The dominance of the informal market is overwhelming. An estimated 80-90 percent of all African seeds are sourced through informal systems. Seeds acquired informally can be good, but can also be of low, or at least sub-optimal quality, with inconsistent supply. However, seeds for cereals like maize (corn) are more likely to come through formal channels. An estimated 44 percent of maize area in eastern and southern Africa and 60 percent in western and central Africa are being sown with formally acquired hybrid seeds.

Most experts agree that formal seed systems need to be expanded if African agriculture is to become more efficient. One major issue that must be better addressed by African countries if they are to attract attention and investment from private seed companies are intellectual property (IP) rights. Many African countries have little or insufficient protection for IP, especially agricultural IP, which deters private actors. While formal seed systems throughout much of Africa have a ways to go before reaching the efficiency of those of, for example, South America, the informal seed system that exists there—despite its obvious drawbacks—can also have some advantages, particularly around market access and hyper-local expertise.

West African regulatory harmonization

In West Africa, the use of improved seed varieties varies by commodity. In 2004, the adoption rate of commercial seeds for staple food crops (cereals, legumes, and tubers) was between two and five percent. Rice saw much higher adoption rates, between 50 and 60 percent, while cotton, a regional cash crop, saw adoption rates as high as 90 percent. These varying adoption rates exist in a context of differing legislation and regulations throughout the region. Regulatory harmonization in West Africa has been particularly slow, as West African seed traders have typically been more interested in the import market than in promoting local products. However, a macro backdrop featuring aggressive population growth rates and a rising middle class have pushed consumption levels upward, further growing the need for commercial activity in the domestic seed industry.

Seed sectors across West Africa have been significantly liberalized over the past two decades as governments transfer seed responsibilities to national seed councils and private enterprises. Furthermore, international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United States Agency of International Development (USAID), have partnered with regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF/WECARD) to establish new organizations focused entirely on seed initiatives. The African Seed Network and the West African Seed Program are among those established to increase seed markets. The West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) recently established a common external tariff under which most countries in the region have seen seed import duties grow from zero to 23 percent. Although this shift does not represent liberalization of trade, it does represent an effort to encourage domestic seed production and shift seed traders’ focus away from imports.

East Africa seeing more success

Countries in East Africa have also been working towards seed policy harmonization, but have seen more success. In 1999, the Eastern and Central Africa Program for Agricultural Policy Analysis (ECAPAPA) initiated the Seed Initiative to unify East African seed policies. This program targeted Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, reviewing those countries’ seed policies and recommending reforms. This process resulted in the streamlining of evaluation, release and registration processes; a reduction in the testing period for new varieties, proposed and actual legislation surrounding plant variety protection in Tanzania and Uganda, and the simplifying of trade documentation. According to International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), seed trade among these countries increased during the same period, although that increase has not been causally linked to those harmonization efforts.

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) have led additional harmonization efforts. COMESA declared its intent to improve, make transparent, and adjust seed policies in 2008, and with the support of USAID, the African Seed Trade Association (ASTA), and Iowa State University, developed a set of technical regulations by 2010. The adoption of these policies would be binding on member countries, and would necessitate that each revise its own national policies to be in accordance with the COMESA regulations.

To date, COMESA members have successfully created a common list of tests for seed inspectors, with the intention of reducing or eliminating the re-testing of imported seeds from those nations. Meanwhile Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are currently implementing a policy, developed by ASARECA, whereby any seed variety registered in a partner country’s national catalog would only require one year of domestic testing in the home country before it can be registered. Kenya’s private seed sector has grown substantially over the last few decades, as has the quantity of maize seed exports, the majority of which are exported to other African countries. However, the strict and disparate certification requirements between East African countries continue to act as obstacles to further seed trade.


It is clear that East African seed markets have benefitted from swift government harmonization and domestic markets with affinities for maize. Maize is arguably the most commercially viable grain for seed producers, especially when the variety is hybrid. As a result, farmers who plant this maize become repeat customers of the seed distributor, bolstering commercial seed markets.

While the West African seed markets have been slower to change than those of East Africa, it is likely that the region will aim to contextualize formal trade parameters, start to provide intellectual property rights for research and development of new varieties, and encourage seed enterprise to flourish. While the coexistence of both formal and informal trade adds to perceptions of inconsistency and even unfairness, it is hard to imagine markets in which only one or the other exists. Harmonization efforts should take into account that each system of trade has advantages and drawbacks, and regulations should aim to maximize each trade system’s benefits while minimizing the negatives to further develop Africa’s seed markets.

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