The cost and scarcity of high quality seeds in Kenya has held back many smallholders in achieving the highest yields, as well as limiting them in trying out new crops. But the first moves by small, local producers into top quality seed production is now opening doors for agropreneurs to experiment with new, more lucrative crops.
The moves by local producers into seed production is essential in raising yields and incomes for farmers, say international think-tanks.
Leldet Seed Company Ltd in Nakuru is typical of the companies now leading the way in expanding seed options to farmers, by taking on the high registration and approval fees, but then packaging seeds for under-utilised seeds such as pigeon pea, sorghum, soya beans, chick pea and ground nut into tiny, sample packets, for farmers to use for their own trials.
As a private company with a750 hectare farm, Leldet has drawn on help from international organizations and research institutions to help more than 5,000 farmers access improved seeds at affordable prices.
Farmers have long shied away from purchasing top quality seeds due to the prohibitive charges and the bulk packaging. However, taking a lead from the success of fast-moving consumer products in rural areas, Leldet came up with the idea of reducing the size of packets of seeds and fertilizers to help smallholder farmers take the first steps to scale-up production.
The small packets can be bought for just a few shillings, enabling farmers to try out the seed before risking their money on large purchases for uncertain results.
Leldet has been aggressive in marketing the small packs to farmers through farmer field days and agricultural shows. The small packs are sold in 80g for Sh10, or 400g at Sh50, as opposed to, for example, a 50 kilogram bag of fertilizer which goes for Sh2,500 to Sh3,000. On average 150 farmers are reached on a single field day.
The low cost of the small packs limits farmers’ risk, and is encouraging them to try something new. “In most rural shops, seed and fertilizers are sold in bulk sizes that most poor farmers cannot afford. Smallholder farmers are largely an untapped, underserved market," says Mrs Jayne Leakey, the director of Leldet Seed Company who got into the seed business when she found she couldn’t get improved seed varieties for her own farm.
Watching many fellow farmers limited for the same reason, she embarked on the long process that would culminate in a commercial seeds venture.
With a grant from AGRA, Leakey managed to pay a fee of some $2000 to take an improved crop variety to the national trials of the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, required before she could be allowed to distribute the seeds.
Once approved, Leakey set out to create demonstration sites where she would explain the seed varieties to farmers. She has so far conducted 600 demonstrations across Kenya, showcasing at least five varieties planted per site. An estimated 21,000 farmers have visited the demonstrations since she began them in 2008. Mrs Leakey then relies on these farmers to spread the word about the high yield seeds to their fellow farmers.
Leakey blames the shortage of improved varieties of orphan crops in Kenya on the disconnect between breeders and the farmers on the ground. The majority of the breeders in universities and research institutions face cash constraints and bureaucratic struggle in getting crops certified, she says.
“You have a quagmire of all this germ plasm which sits in universities and research organizations and needs to be taken through the process of commercialization. This process discourages the breeders, and farmers are the ultimate losers,” she said.
Mrs Leakey argues that the biggest challenge for most of the seed companies like hers is accessing markets in other parts of the country. “We rely on middlemen and this raises the seed prices,” she says.
AGRA is however exploring ways to facilitate growth of these firms. It has already joined forces with African Agricultural Capital Group and established the African Seed Investment Fund, with an initial capitalization of Sh900 million. The amount will be invested in at least 20 seed companies in East and Southern Africa.
According to the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization pushing for collaboration between crop breeders, small seed companies are a crucial link in the seed supply chain. Improved varieties are often the easiest and most cost effective form of technology change especially in smallholder production.
The organization further notes that when locally done, seed improvement and production give farmers access to improved varieties at a lower cost, as marketing and transportation costs are minimal. The savings are thus passed to farmers through reduced prices.