Blog Post

Is the Global Seed Industry Investing in Smallholders? A New Report Measures Private Sector Engagement

Improved seed varieties that are more resistant to heat, drought, and pests and disease can help farmers increase their crop yields and adapt to the effects of climate change. However, smallholder farmers often do not use improved seeds, because of prohibitively high costs, a lack of access to seed dealers, or a lack of information about the benefits of improved varieties.

To examine how global and regional seed companies are working to address these constraints, the Access to Seeds Foundation has released its first Access to Seeds Index, focusing on four regions that were identified as having food security challenges, strong smallholder presence, and agricultural potential: Latin America, western Africa, eastern Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. The report finds that at the global level, seed companies are active in most countries in these regions, with the exception of western Africa. Regionally, the report focuses on eastern Africa and finds that regional companies are having some success in filling the gaps left by global suppliers. These findings make it clear that there has been strong private sector commitment to making improved seed varieties more affordable, accessible, and well understood in developing countries; however, important gaps still remain.

The index looks at seed companies that cover the full seed value chain, from research and development through marketing and sales. Companies are grouped into separate rankings: global field crop seed companies with seed revenues over US$1 billion, global vegetable seed companies with seed revenues over $100 million, and leading seed companies in each specific region. The global index covers seven field crop seed companies and ten vegetable seed companies, and a total of 17 companies are covered in the regional index. The index’s authors consulted a variety of stakeholders to collect data, including smallholder farmers, seed company representatives, governments, multilateral organizations and NGOs, and academic researchers.

The concept of “access to seeds” was broken down into six dimensions: availability, affordability, suitability, capability, profitability, and autonomy; stakeholders then explained what they expected from seed companies in each of these dimensions: commitment, performance, transparency, and innovation. These expectations are measured across seven measurement areas: governance and strategy, public policy and stakeholder engagement, genetic resources and intellectual property, research and development, marketing and sales, capacity-building, and local seed sector advancement. A company’s overall score is the weighted sum of the scores for all indicators.

The methodology faced some limitations in terms of the comparability of companies, crops, and smallholder populations, as well as the data available and the use of a weighted scorecard methodology. These limitations resulted in more general recommendations rather than country- or crop-specific lessons; future iterations of the report may choose to adjust indicator weights or focus more on country- or crop-level differences to provide more meaningful results.

The report found that Colombia, Kenya, India, and Thailand have the highest concentration of global seed companies. Bejo, DuPont Pioneer, and East-West Seed have the largest footprint, operating in more than 30 countries across the four study regions. However, as the report points out, companies’ presence in a country does not necessarily mean that seeds are actually accessible at the village level or in more remote regions; further research is needed in these areas to determine companies’ actual impact.

In addition to ranking individual companies, the index also highlights some key lessons and best practices. Global companies tend to focus on major crops like maize and rice; local crops like cowpeas or amaranth are typically covered by regional companies. Regional companies also tend to go further in addressing the needs of smallholder populations, possibly because they have more knowledge of local conditions and crops and may have closer relationships with local and regional research and development organizations.

Companies have provided some innovative programs to help increase smallholders’ access to seeds. These include Syngenta’s use of a crop insurance plan to make improved seed varieties more affordable, and Victoria Seeds’ use of local transportation (tuk-tuks in Uganda) as mobile seed shops to increase accessibility in remote villages. These programs are a promising start, but the report suggests that companies can do more to incorporate such innovations into more smallholder-focused business models.

The index’s consultations found that global seed companies very rarely involve smallholder producers in the breeding or seed production stages of the value chain; rather, they see smallholders only as end-users. Producers, on the other hand, see themselves as integral partners in the seed value chain, and regional seed companies seem to be more successful at taking farmers into account. For example, the Ugandan company NASECO reported that as much as 90 percent of its seed production is done by smallholder producers and producer organizations.

The report also found that many companies are lagging behind when it comes to programs specifically targeting female farmers. Only three of the global companies surveyed conducted any type of training or inputs specifically for women: Rijk Zwaan in Guatemala, Syngenta in Bangladesh, and East-West Seed in Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Programs for women are similarly sparse among regional companies, with Seed Co. conducting programs in Kenya and Victoria Seeds conducting programs in Kenya and Uganda.

Most of the companies surveyed do conduct programs to encourage the adoption of improved varieties. These programs take a number of forms, including DuPont Pioneer’s use of demonstration plots in partnership with USAID and the Ethiopian government; EastWest Seed’s use of smaller seed packages and provision of information in local languages and through pictures to reach illiterate farmers; and Bayer CropScience’s innovative Much More Rice solutions box, which provides several agricultural inputs in one package to farmers in Ghana, India, and Vietnam.

In addition, many companies take part in capacity-building programs; however, most of these programs are run on a case-by-case basis rather than being included as a structural part of companies’ business models. EastWest Seed is the only company covered in the index that conducts capacity-building programs in 75 percent of the countries in which it works.

Finally, the report finds that much more commitment is needed to engage local and informal seed sectors; while many companies do support local seed research capacity and work with local seed suppliers, such engagement is again conducted on a case-by-case basis rather than as part of a formal, company-wide commitment.

The Access to Seeds Index highlights the importance of the private sector in increasing smallholders’ access to and use of improved seed varieties. While this importance seems to be recognized and many companies have made steps to increase their smallholder engagement, more formal commitments are needed to engage with local researchers and seed companies and to recognize smallholder producers as partners, not just consumers.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI