Partners for Advancing Agriculture ®

Breaking the Bottlenecks in High-quality Seed Systems

Summer 2018

breaking-bottlenecks-shutterstock_33409396In 2014, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Bureau of Food Security partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and other international donors to leverage significant seed system changes by breaking the bottlenecks in early generation seed (EGS) and other forms of quality seed in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through this program’s lead partner, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), Context Network* was selected in 2016 to apply a previously vetted methodology to analyze seed value chains and identify the actors and actions needed to produce an adequate supply of breeder and foundation seed on a sustainable basis. 


*Context Global Development (CGD) was subsequently founded as a sister organization of the Context Network for the implementation of development interventions.  


In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, farmers face a severely limited supply of high-quality seed. Although it is widely understood that early generation seed (EGS) systems lead to healthier, more consistent crops and stronger yields, many factors in the developing world create hurdles to such systems. Most farmers throughout the region are poor, relying on relatively low-quality seeds reserved from the previous year’s harvest. Therefore, demand for improved seed can initially be hard to gauge. Moreover, a host of other factors often stymie effective seed value chains, from poorly functioning national variety release systems, to weak policies and misplaced subsidies, to counterfeit seeds that undermine farmer confidence in the formal seed market. “It’s a complex problem that can’t be resolved with a single fix,” says Context Network Principal Mark Nelson. “We recognized that our first step was to untangle the underlying reasons EGS systems underperform within each country for each crop. From there, we were able to identify strategic recommendations for transforming respective seed value chains.”

Early in 2016, Context worked with lead implementer AfricaLead/Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) to assemble a team of seed experts and in-country consultants, effectively merging both firms’ management consulting know-how with the deep insights of industry experts. Together, the team developed a field research process that tapped the collective knowledge of hundreds of key stakeholders in the seed industry—ranging from farmers, seed multipliers and retailers, and seed company managers to government officials and managers within nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Nelson says, “This collaborative and stakeholder-centric approach is a hallmark of Context’s way of developing solutions to resolve systemic problems.” The Context team’s in-field engagement and seed system expertise supports rapid immersion within the complexities of local seed value chains, while the team’s engagement with a range of local stakeholders provides the opportunity to address numerous breakdowns simultaneously. The team first successfully piloted this field-research approach in Rwanda and Zambia, then developed and refined a curriculum to train additional country consultants, working across several other Sub-Saharan countries and subsequently replicating this approach in Kenya and Nigeria.

The trained country teams used a standardized, 10-step field research methodology (see Figure 1) to identify and address the bottlenecks on breeder and foundation seed within the focus countries. First, teams assessed the current situation of seed systems for prioritized crops, gaining an understanding of which seed systems were dominant and how the current EGS systems functioned. Next, they analyzed seed system economics to identify potential EGS demand relative to the revenue/cost of EGS production.

Finally, armed with this research, the teams shaped operational strategies and recommendations for overcoming key seed supply challenges. Crucial to these recommendations was an understanding of the type of public-private partnerships best suited to the specific market, crop, and economic dimensions. The team used a unique four-box matrix to determine which of “market archetypes” each country-crop represented. These market archetypes were Private Sector Dominant, Public Sector Dominant, Public-Private Collaboration, and Niche Private Sector (see Figure 2), which reflect the level of demand for improved varieties of the crop relative to the profit margin potential.

As an example, in Nigeria, the project team partnered with Sahel Capital and kicked off the project with three regional stakeholder meetings to align on a prioritization of crops for seed supply chain improvement. Yam, maize, rice, and soybean were selected, based on factors such as importance for food security, nutritional value, income-generating potential, competition from imports, private sector engagement, industrial demand, government support, women’s participation in the crop, and more.

Taking Nigeria again as an example, the Context team determined that yam reflected the Public Sector Dominant market archetype since demand for improved varieties was currently low but had potential for increasing with public sector-led development of a formal seed system, including farm demonstrations showing the benefits of improved varieties. Moreover, while the current marginal value of yam seed was low, emerging technologies held the promise of reducing seed production costs, enabling private seed company growth, and allowing formal seed demand to emerge.

Upon conclusion of research in all four countries, the team synthesized findings across the individual studies to identify broader prevailing themes uncovered through the research. It was clear across all countries that structural and demand issues impacting the quantity, quality, and use of EGS seed can be resolved, but only if supported by adequate investment of financial and human resources. Therefore, improving seed provider profitability came to be a common theme across these country/crop studies. In addition, multi-crop strategies within a shared geography or market surfaced as a way to justify and buoy development of seed production operations.

Further expanding on these cumulative findings, Context also developed the EGS Investment Plan Guide. Context Senior Program Manager Jason Nickerson describes the practical application of this guide: “We wanted to put tools in the hands of policy makers to help transform EGS study findings into solid investment plans that will stimulate funding and resource allocation for the public-sector functions needed in a sustainable EGS system.”

While overcoming seed supply chain bottlenecks is challenging, Context is proving that deep experience in the global seed sector can support the appropriate identification and recommendation of systemic solutions. The formation of Context Global Development puts additional muscle behind these ideas and highlights the organization’s commitment to doing good, well.

To learn more about Context Global Development’s work in Africa, please contact Mark Nelson, Managing Director at Context Global Development (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide. CGD teams with development organizations and government agencies to maximize the value of agricultural resources in developing countries as they partner to accelerate innovations that result in meaningful and lasting change.