It is time to let the seed industry grow to enhance food security

Thursday March 31 2016

Visitors at the Kenya Seed Company stand at the Mombasa International Agricultural Show on August 26, 2015. During a review of seed regulations initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2013, the private sector suggested that Kenya do what many countries have done - get rid of regulations that make it difficult to supply farmers with seed. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Visitors at the Kenya Seed Company stand at the Mombasa International Agricultural Show on August 26, 2015. During a review of seed regulations initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2013, the private sector suggested that Kenya do what many countries have done - get rid of regulations that make it difficult to supply farmers with seed. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Kenya’s government and seed company owners are having a serious conversation about rules.

We seem to be in agreement on the end result: We want agriculture to thrive for the benefit of Kenya’s people and economy.

What we need to do now is formally agree on the best way to achieve this goal.

During a review of seed regulations initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2013, the private sector suggested that Kenya do what many countries have done - get rid of regulations that make it difficult to supply farmers with seed.

In their place, set high standards for seed quality and stiff penalties for non-compliance. And then let the industry decide how best to meet these standards.

Ministry officials responded positively, although they may be worried about the consequences of easing the controls too much.

How the government exercises its legitimate oversight of the seed industry is one of the most important issues we face as a country.

REGULATIONS

Costly and time-consuming regulations make it harder for Kenyan farmers to get the best available seed.

They also limit farmers’ access to exciting innovations such as drought-tolerant crop varieties.

This hurts agricultural productivity, which is Kenya’s best hope for boosting food security, employment, and economic development.

We need to make our national seed industry more efficient, innovative, and competitive so that it can offer farmers a wider range of high-yielding crop varieties.

Take, for example, the issue of seed certification, which is mandatory in some countries, including ours.

If I want to bring a new maize variety to the market, government regulators must examine how I plant, harvest, and dry the seed and how I prepare and package the final product.

This hand-holding accounts for 10 per cent of production costs and stifles ability to innovate and provide higher value to farmers. 

Government authorities do not need to oversee every task involved in quality control.

Private seed companies could devise their own quality control measures and even outsource some steps, such as laboratory analysis, to independent experts.

GOVERNMENT CERTIFICATION

In many countries, farmers have access to high-quality seed, but there is no mandatory government certification.

Instead, companies set their own quality standards, with private sector quality assurance managers playing a major role. Certification is voluntary.

There is also a need to review the system of national performance trials, which are a condition for variety release in Kenya.

Companies pay a hefty fee to propose crop varieties for release, which are then tested for up to two years or even longer.

The release committee, composed largely of government representatives, decides whether a crop variety can be offered to farmers.

If this system must remain, then some requirements, such as the expectation that any new variety yield at least 10 per cent more than its predecessors, should be done away with.

In other countries, a more incremental approach has proven more effective for raising crop productivity.

Some no longer have release committees and let market forces determine what farmers are willing to buy, with the government serving as the official registrar for the varieties in the market.

India and several other developing countries have shifted the regulatory functions to the private sector.

Without many bureaucratic hurdles, companies can produce a higher volume and wider range of high-quality, affordable seed. 

The supporters of Kenya’s regulatory regime argue that rules are required to protect farmers from being duped with “fake” seeds.

But countries such as South Africa and India have found that a more effective alternative is to establish standards backed by penalties for non-compliance that are severe enough to deter the distribution of fake seed. 

Seed companies want to be more directly involved in the National Seed Regulation Committee.

The regulators need to give the seed industry more freedom with the understanding that with greater freedom comes increased responsibility. 

Mr Karanja is the chairman of the Seed Trade Association of Kenya and the MD of Freshco Seeds.