Africa’s farmers need quality seeds but the seed sector in Africa has often struggled to meet this need. The continent’s share in the global seed trade is very low, seed markets often aren’t supported, and the supply of quality seeds and improved crop varieties is weak.
Poor seed supply threatens agriculture’s ability to play its part in economic development, food security and poverty alleviation in Africa.
In the face of these challenges, African countries are working together across the continent to improve seed systems. One promising source of help may be India. That country’s generic pharmaceuticals industry is seen as a success story for international development and cooperation. It has brought affordable drugs to many people not only in India but across the developing world, including in Africa.
Could India’s thriving seed sector play a similar role in delivering affordable, high-quality seeds to African farmers?
Does Africa need India’s seeds?
There are good reasons to explore this possibility. India shares some of the diverse agro-ecologies and crops found in Africa, so it is plausible that technologies and methods used by Indian farmers might also be relevant to African situations. India’s development story, as an emerging economy with millions of its own small-scale cultivators, might indeed provide relevant knowledge, expertise and investments to help develop the seed sector in Africa.
Yet there are also limitations. India has a vibrant domestic seed market and seed companies with capacity for international expansion, but at present India is a relatively minor player in seed exports to Africa. In 2014 the country occupied only 14th place in the list of nations exporting seeds to Africa, with less than two percent of the trade.
Even if India’s seed exports to Africa increased, they would need to be supported by strong public investment and policy frameworks. These were vital in the story of India’s own seed industry, as well as the country’s Green Revolution. Aid donors, philanthropic organisations and civil society would also have crucial roles to play, alongside Indian and African governments, in ensuring that benefits were equally distributed.
It is therefore not only a question of what profit-seeking seed firms from India might accomplish in pursuit of their own commercial interests. The question is how improving access to modern agricultural technologies might create broad benefits for cultivators and consumers, and for rural and national development.
Dealing with variety and difference
The opportunities available to Indian seed companies in Africa would vary for different crop markets, regions and countries. The seed sector is highly segmented for different crops and seed technologies that have different biological and market characteristics. Informal seed systems remain vital for many small-scale African farmers, alongside the formal seed systems that serve more commercial farmers.
Africa’s national and regional seed systems and markets also vary considerably, despite initiatives and proposals to harmonise seed sector policies and regulatory frameworks on regional and continental scales.
For example, the seed sectors in Kenya and Ethiopia represent contrasting system types that offer quite different opportunities and challenges for Indian actors to support seed system development. In simple terms, Ethiopia represents a more state-controlled, tightly regulated seeds market whereas Kenya is more liberalised and commercialised.
These differences all have implications for the needs of farmers, market opportunities and incentives for public and private investment, appropriate strategies for engagement, and for the distribution of risks and benefits, including for poor farmers as well as larger cultivators.
My colleague Ian Scoones and I recently worked with a team of collaborators from India, Kenya and Ethiopia to explore what if anything India might have to offer towards the development of African seed systems. In our report we discuss several different channels or mechanisms by which Indian genetic material, finance, technology and expertise might enter African seed systems.
The most obvious is the direct or indirect export of seed from India to African countries. The principal crops and seed technologies flowing from India into Africa are vegetables, along with hybrids of vegetables and some field crops. Ordinary grain crops are less commonly traded because of stricter regulation for these ‘food security crops’.
Another channel is direct investments in African seed companies and seed production facilities, or in non-seed agricultural production. This strategy sometimes involves buying up an African subsidiary, starting a new one, or creating a joint venture with an African firm, enabling Indian firms to establish a ‘domestic’ presence within African countries.
This is not always easy. Several Indian direct investments in the agricultural sectors in Kenya and Ethiopia have faced problems and difficulties establishing themselves, leading to soured relationships and reputational damage.
Technology and expertise
Other channels by which Indian seed sector stakeholders might help to develop African seed sectors include transfers of technology and technical expertise. India may be in a competitive position to offer useful technology to African farmers in the form of hybrids (e.g. of maize and cotton) and transgenic technologies (especially Bt cotton), with the potential for further expansion in the future.
Technical expertise sometimes flows from India to Africa in the embodied form of individual managers and executives who carry their experience of working in India’s seed industry into posts with African seed companies. Our report documents several examples of this kind. We also document examples of Indian firms that collaborate with regional seed sector development programmes and initiatives with partners from the public, private and philanthropic sectors.
Can India raise its game?
Market forces and the entrepreneurial capacities of Indian seed firms will largely determine whether they are able to open up and exploit new markets in Africa.
To achieve this, India’s seed industry needs to raise its game. It will need to compete hard in challenging markets against rivals from around the world. At present India is a relatively minor player in seed exports to Africa.
The industry should also play to its strengths. Indian seed firms may have particular strengths they could bring to African markets, including locally suitable genetic material and hybrids. India’s seed firms are also accustomed to working in a market comprised largely of millions of small-scale and resource-constrained farmers, which arguably positions them to develop similar opportunities in Africa.
Cultural ties can help too. In East Africa, Indian companies can and do take advantage of the region’s diaspora communities of Indian origin.
Alongside these industry and cultural characteristics are the aspirations of the Indian government to play a larger role in bilateral, South-South relations of diplomacy, trade and technical cooperation. Ultimately, the major question for Indian as well as African stakeholders is whether they have the political and strategic will to engage with and learn from one another in horizontal and equal relationships of mutual respect, from which both sides can benefit.
Dominic Glover is a Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. He is a co-author along with Amit Kumar, Dawit Alemu, Hannington Odame, Maureen Akwara and Ian Scoones of a new report, Indian seeds in Africa: A scoping study of challenges and opportunities (Future Agricultures Working Paper 135).
Key issues from the report are also summarised in a Policy Brief, ‘Indian seeds for African markets: South–South trade and technical cooperation’ (Future Agricultures Policy Brief 81).