Science - September 15, 2017

Free sale of seeds in Ethiopia falters

Text:
Albert Sikkema

Plant breeders in Ethiopia should be able to sell their seeds directly to farmers instead of having to sell these to the government. Although the advantages are clear, this direct seed marketing cannot seem to get any footing. PhD candidate Mohammed Hassena Beko investigated which parties are holding back this liberalisation.

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Until recently, the Ethiopian farmers could only order their sowing seed from the government. However, due to the increasing demand for food and good seed, the central distribution of the formerly communistic government hit its limitations. The government decided to liberalise the seed market: from that moment on, plant breeders would be allowed to sell their seed directly to farmers. From 2011 to 2015, WUR took part in this change via an integrated seed sector development programme (in Dutch).

Open access
The aim of opening the Ethiopian seed market and allowing access to international seed companies was to increase both the amount and the quality of seeds. Experiments were started with groups of farmers, and evaluations revealed that the direct sales of seed to farmers indeed improved revenues and harvests.

Two views
However, the Ethiopian government still has not passed the liberalisation of the seed market. According to Beko, this is due to the government being stuck between two views: on the one hand, they want to improve seed quality and food production, but on the other, they want to keep their hands on the distribution of seed to keep the farmers dependent and to be able to maintain a just distribution of the seed among the various regions. Moreover, about 60,000 agricultural advisors are involved in the inventory and distribution of the seed in the regions, and they want to keep their jobs.

Indecisive
The consequence is that the government defers making a decision. The government officials in Addis Ababa refuse to advise on the direct sale of seed, because that would force them to take a position in a liberalisation debate whose outcome is still unclear. These officials refer to the individual regions, who should make their own decisions on the matter. But the regional officials do not take a position either; they claim that a national framework is necessary. Everyone want a decision to be made about the direct sales of seed, but no one is prepared to contribute to the decision, concludes Beko.

Development agenda
In the meantime, many vegetable seeds are already being sold to horticulturists via direct seed marketing, partly because the Ethiopian government has designated new horticultural sites. The distribution of seed of traditional food crops such as wheat, barley, teff, sorghum and maize still mainly passes by the government. This is because the seed is part of the development agenda of the government to eradicate hunger and poverty and to bind the farmers. This political agenda hinders the development of direct seed marketing in Ethiopia, says Beko.

Mohammed Hassena Beko defended his PhD thesis on 13 September. His supervisor was Bernd van der Meulen, professor in Law and Governance.