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Reaping what you sow: developing a seed industry in Africa

Without good seed farmers will not achieve good yields (WRENmedia)
Without good seed farmers will not achieve good yields

"To achieve any green revolution you must start with the right inputs, and seed is frequently the only input that smallholder farmers can afford. It is critical that we have seed systems that work. But it is just a starting point," says Josephine Okot, founder and managing director of Victoria Seeds Ltd, in Uganda.

Without good seed, it is impossible for farmers to achieve good yields. Good soil, water and nutrients help to raise productivity but without viable seed, a farmer will fail to reap a good harvest. Developing better and more appropriate seeds is the goal of many of Africa's seed companies, but it is recognised that additional assistance may be required to help smallholder farmers gain access to new, improved varieties of local crops that are more drought-tolerant or pest resistant, for example.

Having faced start-up challenges as a woman entrepreneur, in four years Okot has grown her company into a dependable seed house exporting to regional markets. Valued support in developing her business has been given by the Seeds of Development Program (SODP), a Market Matters Inc. project, which provides business development services for small to medium-sized seed companies. Okot reports that "workshop training has helped us improve our skills in seed marketing, distribution and processing."

Sowing the seeds of success

Launched in 2003, SODP has a network of 30 seed companies in seven East and Southern African countries, it expects to continue to expand in the region. Member companies are carefully selected and offered training, distance learning, and field visits. They are also provided with an opportunity to gather at an annual seed trading forum, and to benefit from research conducted by the Emerging Markets Program at Cornell University, which guides private company strategies and informs governments on seed industry policies and regulations.

Josephine Okot of Victoria Seeds, Uganda (SODP)
Josephine Okot of Victoria Seeds, Uganda

Okot joined the SODP network whilst working for another seed company, but through its training and support, she was inspired to set up her own business. In four years, Okot has honed her skills to build the company and branch out in new directions. For instance, an SODP-supported field visit to India enabled Okot to identify a reputable grower and supplier of vegetable seeds.

Committed to meeting the needs of smallholder farmers in Uganda, Victoria Seeds sells over 50 varieties of seeds, including pigeon pea, groundnut, sesame, soyabean, maize, rice, sorghum and millet, as well as various vegetable varieties, through a countrywide network of over 400 retail stockists. In addition, the company contracts over 200 growers - mostly women's groups - to produce its seed.

A need for harmonisation

In 2006, Okot was recognised Uganda's leading woman entrepreneur by the magazine Business in Africa. In 2007, she was the Yara Prize laureate, in recognition of her work with the private sector and her leadership role in the harmonisation of seed policies and regulations in East Africa.

Currently, seed policies and regulations differ across African countries, limiting opportunities for trade and collaboration. However, efforts are underway to harmonise the seed industry for regional trading blocs. For example, across the 14 Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries, seed industry stakeholders have been formulating a single policy document to enable seed companies to move seed and germplasm across national borders, register varieties more easily and market their products regionally. A parallel initiative is underway for three East African countries.

In countries where legislation is not in place or where it is poorly enforced, Okot feels that emerging seed companies and agri-input dealers are at risk from "unscrupulous traders who disseminate counterfeit seed varieties, which undermines farmer confidence and further investment in the sector."

A growing industry

Victoria Seeds staff at the company's headquarters in Uganda (Victoria Seeds)
Victoria Seeds staff at the company's headquarters in Uganda
Victoria Seeds

Whilst the seed sector in Africa may be still in its infancy, it is nevertheless undergoing a positive transformation, reports SODP's Edward Mabaya. Almost all companies in the SODP fellowship have experienced growth, offering a greater variety of seeds to farmers, including higher yielding, disease and drought-resistant varieties, as well as other inputs such as fertilisers. Company data shows that more than 80 per cent of sales go to smallholder farmers. As companies like Victoria Seeds have expanded, so has the requirement for labour.

Mabaya is encouraged by the progress, particularly as seed companies are learning from each other not just within Africa but also from small, successful companies in Asia. Whilst SODP will continue to offer funds to bring new members into the network, Mabaya hopes that some of the activities will become self-sustaining with more of the costs and services being provided by the seed companies themselves. Some of the companies are already sending two or three people financed by the business to attend training and networking events, and it is here that partnerships and business deals for the future of the seed industry in Africa are formed.

Okot, like many other SODP fellows, strongly believes that an African seed industry has a key role to play in integrating Africa's agricultural economies into world markets. She admits that challenges, even frustrations remain in access to finance and developing sound agricultural policies but, she says, "however much we talk it can never be translated into real wealth for Africa unless the private sector is supported in order to translate opportunities into viable ventures."

Date published: July 2008


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