In 2013, agriculture in Uganda contributed 23.9 per cent of total GDP and provided approximately 82 per cent of the employment. As a result, the sector has received significant donor support, with part of the proposed solution being to invest in modernising the seed industry.
Seeds are the most renewable agricultural resource. Quality seed is one of the determinants of farming success but high-yield seeds are expensive, and so place poor farmers at a disadvantage (pdf). As a result 90 per cent of Uganda’s crops are still produced using home-saved seed.
Only 10–15 per cent of farmers in Uganda use improved seed and many of the seed companies find it difficult to turn a profit. Why, after so much effort and support, is the seed industry still struggling?
World Bank research findings
The reasons these problems persist are threefold. In research I carried out for the World Bank, they were found to be:
First, that the agriculture ministry, which has the mandate for all matters related to seed standards and regulation, has been supported by donors for many years but still avoids inspecting companies dealing in fakes, while licensing companies with no proper capacity for producing decent seed.
Second, the donors stick to the old agenda, promoting an essentially technical response (building labs, supporting training, running workshops). A donor involved in the seed industry said: “We were pretty fatigued on the seed industry ... It’s difficult to attribute much good that came from the efforts we made.”
Third, the parliamentary process is weak and the guiding legislation is a patchwork of imperfect and incomplete acts, strategies, and bills, none of them functioning properly.
The result is that counterfeit seeds are widely available on the market, estimated at between 30-40 per cent. With few capital costs, the margins for faking are much better than for running a legitimate business. Sources in the industry suggest that these practices are well organised and that fake seeds may even be coming from inside respectable companies.
What should be done is clear enough
Uganda should adopt the standards of neighbouring countries (that is, Kenya and South Africa).
Next, it must open the borders to currently severely restricted seed imports from these countries, and create a seed regulatory body funded by the industry and beyond the reach of the agriculture ministry.
However, making the above progress has been extremely difficult. All the stakeholders have developed complex survival strategies. The default for most of them is to stay as they are and avoid rocking the boat.
In all this smallholder farmers remain powerless. The usual consensus in the development industry is that they have to be organised for collective action but this is hard when their representative bodies are so feeble.
These bodies (farmers’ unions and traders’ associations) have no capacity to properly represent members even if they wanted to. For a long time, they have received more money from donors than they ever could from providing services to their members and this taints their whole operation.
There is no magic bullet, no technical fix, and progress will come down to politics, yet policymaking is not a technical process. Legislators do not pick up on technical research and just decide to change policy.
Change is a process, and must include all stakeholders, from donors such as the US Agency for International Development (Usaid), UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO); farmers’ groups and regional trading bodies like East Africa Community (EAC).
They must work together to build a consensus for change, agree on a policy and legal framework, pursue regional integration, improve advocacy and above all continue to support the work of smallholder farmers.
If progress to date has been stifled by a lack of benefits for the political elite, and the risk of economic losses for large farmers and seed producers, ultimately delivering on Uganda’s agricultural potential depends on its ability to ensure the benefits of change outweigh the costs.
James Joughin is a researcher at Development Associates. This article is adapted from theguardian.com