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Uganda Farmers Contend with Seeds of Uncertainty


James Kisembo, a farmer in Kabarole, western Uganda, decided to prepare two acres for growing beans, three times the size of what he grew in 2014. Kisembo was inspired by the good harvest his neighbour got the previous season. He went hunting for the better seed varieties from a seed shop in Fort Portal town.

“I bought seeds like the ones my neighbour had planted the previous season,” Kisembo says. “After the rains started, I planted. To my surprise, after two weeks, the seeds had not germinated.”  Normally bean seeds take 4-6 days to germinate.

Not all seeds germinate as expected

On talking about his predicament with fellow farmers in the area, Kisembo was surprised when four farmers in a neighbouring village said that they have ever bought and planted seed varieties supposed to be of better quality that either didn’t germinate, withered at a tender age, or failed to fruit.

As farmers in Uganda increasingly turn to improved seed varieties, (not depending on saved seed from the previous season), concern is rising over the genuineness of seeds sold on the Uganda market. Many farmers are being affected by the increasing supply of fake seeds or seeds that are not the type the seed seller says it is.

The Uganda National Farmers Association (UNFF) estimates that only 20% of seeds that farmers buy germinate and grow effectively to harvest.  Yet good seeds are a prerequisite for generating adequate food and income for farmers from their agriculture activities.

Moses Nkata, the Manager of Policy and Advocacy at UNFF says farmers in Uganda are suffering under increasing presence of fake agricultural inputs. The problem, according to seed companies, is limited regulation of the seed market in Uganda.

Limited regulation

Traders compalain of Unregulated seed market

Seed traders finding it hard to produce quality seed

Dr. Ruth Ssebuliba, the Executive Secretary of the Uganda Seed Trade Association says seed companies largely police themselves, which has led to presence of many substandard or fake seed providers on the market.

“We are very concerned because some companies want to produce genuine seeds while others engage in fake seeds,” Dr. Sebuliba says.  “They just buy some seed grain, colour it with some dye and pack it and sell it to farmers. At the end of the day, the person faking seed will be able to sell his seeds very cheaply and for you who is doing a good job, you will not be able to compete,” she explains.

Such a situation has killed the morale of managers of seed companies in improving seed quality, according to Sebuliba. “Many then resort to the cheapest and easiest ways to manufacture seeds, and the farmers suffer because they get seeds that fail to live to the promise of better yields” she says.

While new seed varieties being marketed by seed companies normally produce better yields, for now, farmers like Kisembo have to buy them cautiously. “It is difficult for a farmer to be sure whether the seed will be good and how much yield it will produce,” he says.

Inadequate seed supply

Sebuliba points to inadequate inspection of seed companies, saying two seed inspectors cannot be expected to oversee seed production of more than 20 companies across the country.  The government however says 18 new inspectors were hired in 2011.

“But the major challenge is shortage of seed. The seed companies are still constrained to meet the demand.  These companies are only able to produce about 30 percent of the seeds demanded by farmers. Now when farmers are clamouring for quality seed, there are some unscrupulous people taking advantage of the vacuum to supply substandard seeds,” says Komayombi Bulegeya, the Commissioner for Crop Protection at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries.

He says the government has also mandated district Agriculture officers to control and regulate the movement and marketing of seed by inspecting seed stockists in their respective districts.

Costly Mother Seeds

But seed companies also say helping them produce more and better seeds will take more than better regulation. Seed companies buy the mother (foundation) seed from the National Agriculture Research Organisation or other research organizations. T. D. Shankar, the General Manager of East Africa seeds says a kilogram of primary seed costs between 100,000- 200,000 (50 US dollars -100 US dollars).

T. D. Shankar, General Manager of East Africa Seeds

“By the time we reproduced that seed to enough quantities, we have invested so much money and time,” Shankar says. “The government should be helping us to buy enough seed amounts from the scientists so that we are helped to produce the seeds that are vital for improving agriculture.”

Because of the high seed production costs, some companies are forced to forego some of required steps to produce a proper seed. It just doesn’t make economic sense to make and supply the best seed when other competitors are not following the procedures.

“The government tells seed traders that they should not get involved in seed faking so that they can build a name (brand) and that with time and those ones faking will collapse. But by the time you build a name I can assure you, you will have collapsed,” Dr. Sebuliba contends.

Young Seed Industry

But some of these challenges are reflective of a budding seed industry. About 13 years ago, there was only one seed producing organisation in Uganda; the government owned Uganda Seed Project. The government liberalized seed production and remained with the seed regulation duties under its Seed Inspection Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture.

While it was easy to control quality seed production under the government department, the government has not yet developed the capacity to regulate seed production and marketing that ensures farmers are getting genuine better seeds.

Dr. Sebuliba believes despite the challenges, the seed industry under private players has improved seed provision and farming. “More than 20 companies are registered to produce seed. We have increased seed output by more 200 percent. We as an industry are well organized and just need a better environment for seed companies to operate as sound businesses, while also properly serving farmers,” she says.

Seed companies say they have tried to minimize the effects of adulterated seeds through proper branding of their seeds. Some companies like Victoria Seeds in Gulu even give guarantee that if a seed variety does not grow, a farmer can go back and get a replacement.

“Last year, I bought cabbage seeds from Victoria Seed Company here in Gulu, and the seeds failed to germinate.” says Charles Otto, the lead farmer of Changa min diru Farmers Association in northern Uganda. “When I went back and asked them why their seeds didn’t germinate, they compensated me with another tin of cabbage seeds for planting the next season. They grew very well.”

Yet missing a season for many a farmer is a big missed opportunity not only for the income, but because of the labour the farmer puts in. “I had already done seed bed preparations, slashed, ploughed, prepared the garden, and planted,” Otto says, adding that he has bought varieties of beans, maize, and Carrots from Victoria seeds that have germinated and yielded well.

Ignorance

Ensuring farmers know about the crops they plant

But with changing weather patterns, depletion of nutrients in some soils and failure to read or follow particular planting guidelines of a given seed variety, it is also difficult to determine the reason behind a seed failing to germinate or grow properly to fruition.

The Product Development Officer of East Africa Seeds, Marriam Nalugo says crop yield depends on climate, soil and crop management, including plant spacing, time of planting, weeding, pest control, harvest, and farmer education.

Seed suppliers say while they try to do educate farmers about the new varieties, they are already overwhelmed with seed production and marketing costs, and a further investment to popularize how seeds should be planted is an investment many companies are unwilling to make.

gulu farmers in their group garden

“It is in our interest as a sound business that our product is understood and does well, because customers come back,” says Shankar.  “The major problem is that in the short-run, many uneducated farmers do not differentiate seed companies or suppliers so farmers end up making blanket accusations of fake seeds on all companies. But the onus lies with the government to ensure proper regulation of the seed sector,” Shankar says.

Charles Bongomin of Agro Farm supplies in Gulu says while they try, educating farmers on the planting requirements for different seed varieties is hard since the seed sellers are few compared to the geographical areas and populations they serve.

The government’s National Agriculture Advisory services (NAADS) Program provides extension services, part of which involves availing new seed varieties and advising on how they should be planted. Rogers Nsubuga, a farmer in Masaka says the seed sensitizations carried out do not reach most farmers.

“It is mostly the large scale farmers who benefit because they take great care about what seeds they buy and from who they buy the seeds. But the small scale farmers buy the cheapest seeds from the nearest place when the farmer is to start planting,” Nsubuga says.

Juliet Kafeeroo, a large-scale farmer in Mukono says some farmers just buy seeds without knowing that they have to apply fertilizers, and what type of fertilizers, if the seeds are to perform well. “Because fertilizers have to be bought cash, some farmers just plant and forego the fertilizers,” Kafeero says.

Seed needs  

Investing more in agriculture

Seed traders are calling for increased government and donor funding for seed research to produce seed varieties that will achieve the best for farmers. Komayombi agrees, admitting that his department currently gets only 200 million shillings (about $70,000) to fund seed research and inspection activities.

Komayombi says since more than 70% of Uganda’s population earns a living from farming, the government’s National Development Plan 2010-2015 has set improving agriculture as one of the country’s top priorities to reduce poverty and improve incomes of all Ugandans. He says part of this effort will go to increase availability of quality seed to farmers in Uganda.

A recent study by the Programme for Africa’s Seed Systems found that less than one third of farmers’ seed demand is being met in Uganda. The study concluded that apart from increased research into developing improved seed varieties, more private investors should be encouraged to take up the business of reproducing the new seeds and selling them to farmers who need them to boost agriculture production and food security.

Africa wide efforts to better seeds

The challenges of delivering improved reliable seeds to farmers are not unique to Uganda. Africa regional efforts have been started to revitalize or develop seed industries in different Africa countries.

In March 2010, a new initiative, the Alliance for the Seed Industry in East and Southern Africa (ASIESA) was started.  African farmers are also looking to improved crops varieties that are being developed in different countries with the help of donor programs like AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), to provide seeds that will be dependable even against drought or too much rain. Different such varieties of maize, rice and sorghum are already being tested in Kenya, Egypt, Uganda and other African countries, most of them genetically modified.

But with so many issues in the regulation of non GM seeds for countries like Uganda, it remains to be seen how GM seeds and other hybrids will be controlled in these resource constrained countries.

A recent policy brief by Jose Falck-Zepeda, a Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute mentioned Uganda among over 100 developing countries that lack the technical and management capacity needed to review, tests and monitor compliance of GM crops to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement that says countries should adopt GM crops only if they are of minimal risk to the environment and human health.

Until more reliable seed varieties are available in a properly regulated seed market, farmers like Kisembo for now must contend with uncertain seeds on the market.  “Farming is our key source of a livelihood. Since we cannot farm without seeds, we always have to plant what is available,” Kisembo says.

Seed production

Long process to produce improved seed varieties

For now, farmers in Uganda must hope and patiently wait on the efforts by government bodies like NARO and other researchers to come up with better seed varieties.

Dr. Dan Talengera, a seed breeder at the National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO) says new seed variety development is a careful process that takes a long time and resources. “We have to do a diagnostic survey to establish problems with current variety(ies) before we undertake breeding (mixing strong characteristics from different varieties) of new seeds,” he says. When breeders come up with new varieties, they normally undertake:

  • Breeding
  • Controlled evaluation trials to indentify which new seed variety performs better,
  • Preliminary field trial in a real garden under normal circumstances, multi-location trial to determine whether the new crop variety will perform well in all soil types.
  • Yield stability trials on a research managed farm yield trials to determine whether the new crop variety yields the same throughout.
  • Select farmers who will try out the new chosen variety or varieties in their own farms.
  • Continue observing and evaluating with the farmers
  • What farmers select is multiplied to get seeds for other farmers, or given to a seed producing company to multiply.

“Given that many crops take three months to a year to mature, this whole process takes up to 10years,” Dr. Talengera says. With the liberalization of the seed sector in Uganda, seed breeders are continuously counting on the private sector to develop and upscale the production of new seed varieties.

“Researchers do their part well, and hand over the varieties to seed producers. Whether it is the seed companies or other people that adulterate the new varieties, we do not know. It is up to the government seed inspection unit to ensure farmers receive the right seed varieties all the time,” Dr. Talengera adds.

Aligning crop research and seed traders interests

Apart from the limited interaction and understanding between seed researchers and profit minded seed sellers, other challenges are emerging.

The NARO has for example expressed the need to register and patent their varieties before they are given or licensed to a particular seed producing company.

“We have been trying to push for intellectual property rights so that NARO can gain from the sales of the hybrid seeds we develop here,” says Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, a seed breeder at NARO.

But this need has brought more process to the new variety making new seed varieties delay to reach the farmers. The seed breeder has to take the new variety to a government committee to determine the variety release with all the information about the crop. “ If the variety release committee of the Ministry of Agriculture approves the new seed variety, they register it by giving it a name, outlining the variety’s characteristics. Then the new seed can be taken to the open market for seed multiplication,” Dr. Kiggundu says.

Climate Change

Climate Change effects on seed performance

But some farmers say the failure of seeds is mainly due to changing weather patterns “It is difficult for farmers to know when the rains will start so they can grow their seeds in good time. Here in Atyak, sometimes farmers expect the rains in February or March but we reach April and there are no rains. Sometimes the rains come early February and when farmers plough and plant, the rains disappear and the seeds don’t grow well,” says Makmot John, a farmer in Atyak, northern Uganda.

Climate change making farming unpredictable

He says that unpredictable rains and season patterns resulting from climate changes are making it difficult to realize the real potential or lack of for any seed variety.

“Sometimes the seeds do well, sometimes they don’t do well…it is a matter of prediction. If you predict well, you get good yield, if you don’t, you lose out. There is no certainty with any seed,” he says.

“The unpredictable weather is a big challenge for every farmer. Government and NGOs have been advising us to plant sorghum, millet and rice but sometimes the drought is too much or the rains are unbearable for the cereal and grain crops as well,” says Alphonse Odongkara, a farmer in Balgaru village, northern Uganda.

Dr Talengera of NARO says scientists are also concerned about climate change as making improved seed varieties takes a long time.

“We are committed to produce improved varieties that are especially resistant to pests and diseases, and also weather changes. But it not possible to predict and attune new varieties to the weather changes in all parts of Uganda,” he says.

Scientists say they are looking to biotechnology to make new varieties faster and put in more properties, but it is an area they are venturing in with as much caution to avoid genetically modified seeds which are still officially outlawed in Uganda.

Farmers?

Which farmers are complaining about new varieties?

But some crop scientists talked to say most of the complaints about seeds failing to germinate or produce expected yield is due to some people going into farming with temporary intentions and not taking farming as a profession from which they earn their living.

“We need more serious farmers, not part timers to take up these new varieties. It is difficult to target new varieties at small farmers because of their subsistence mentality. Even in developed countries, proper orderly uptake of new seed varieties is helped by the presence of subsidized big scale farmers who do farming as a profession,” says Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, a seed breeder at NARO.

Dr. Jolly Kabirizi who left her academic work to concentrate on her farming agrees with Dr. Kiggundu, saying many people undertake farming “by remote control”, which she says results in the incidences of poor yields that many people usually complain about.

“You need to be there, purchase the seeds by yourself, oversee the planting, see how seeds are growing and look after the garden properly until harvest,” she says.

Also, while seed breeders agree on the need for more effective seed production mechanisms for seed producers to quickly have seeds to multiply and sell to farmers, some argue that seed companies need to improve their capacity to showcase their products at the grassroots level.

“While there are all these challenges of poor regulation and effective seed chain, the good seed producers will do this country a better service by utlising business means to aggressively market their improved seed offering to farmers. It is the best way to beat the bad competition. Next season, farmers will not buy from the place where they got fake or less yielding seeds if you show a better option. So we need to see companies helped to achieve this capacity to effectively popularize the new seed varieties,” Dr. Talengera said in an interview.

Key  Facts

Uganda: Key Agriculture Facts and Findings  

  • Uganda is a predominantly rural society. About 85 percent of the population earns most of its income from agriculture and the sector is central to poverty reduction efforts.
  • At 3.4 percent per year, the population growth rate is among the fastest in the world but is outpaced by urban growth, which increased by 5.4 percent per year from 1991-2002.  About 15 percent of the population lives in urban centers.
  • Most agricultural production is for subsistence rather than commercial gain but agricultural products continue to generate the majority of Uganda’s export earnings.
  • The services sector, primarily found in cities, has been the most dynamic part of the national economy in recent years, while the agricultural sector has been sluggish.
  • Kampala dominates the urban landscape but its significance may be diminishing. It hosts 80 percent of the country’s industrial and service firms, generates more than half of Uganda’s GDP, and is home to 34 percent of the total urban population, a decline from 45 percent in 1992.
  • Agriculture remains the largest employer and is an important source of non-traditional exports, such as fish, flowers, and other horticultural products, but its contribution to Uganda’s GDP has dwindled to less than 20 percent.
  • Construction and services have filled the gap, having benefited from foreign direct investment and remittances from overseas. While services have generated increased value, the proportion of Ugandans employed in the sector has fallen over the past decade.
  • Road infrastructure in most parts of the country improved from 2002-2010, cutting travel time and enabling more farmers to bring their produce to larger markets at lower cost, but these benefits have not reached the most remote rural areas.
  • About 39 percent of all farming households get more than one-fourth of their staple foods from the market, and about 31 percent of rural households sell significantly more staple foods than they buy.
  • The majority of food-insecure Ugandans live in the countryside but 72.7 percent of urban households are calorie deficient, compared to 60 percent of rural households.

Source: IFPRI research  

Long process of producing new seed varieties

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9D_sLLY-PeA

Dr. Silver Tumweganyire, a potato breeder at the Uganda National Crop Resource Research Institute explains that potato planting material may take up to 10 years to be developed-from a needs assessment, identifying the characteristics of the plant to improve, through breeding to producing a variety the farmer can plant.

Uganda Seed Traders want to produce quality but cannot http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxF4sXAuFNg

A video Question and Answer interview with the Uganda Seed Trade Association Executive Secretary, Dr. Ruth Sebuliba on the prospects, practices and challenges of the Uganda seed industry.  

Farmer dealing with seed options

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwqHbUJDHD0

Otto Charles, a lead farmer in northern Uganda talks about seeds got from fellow farmers and those from seed companies, outlining advantages and drawbacks of seeds from seed companies and fellow farmers.  

Meeting seed demand by farmers key

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOONfMv9hf8

Komayombi Bulegeya, the Commissioner for Crop Protection in the Ministry of Agriculture on the seed industry and government’s role and plans.

 

 

Why some seed companies produce substandard seeds

Point blank: The head of the umbrella organization of seed companies in Uganda admits that seed companies are “forced” to produce substandard seeds due to failure by the government to regulate the seed industry where fake seeds are perverse.

 

 

Government concerned about inadequate seed production capacity Weinformers.net  Q& A with Komayombi Bulegeya, the Commissioner for Crop Protection in the Ministry of Agriculture

A photo slideshow of seed production and crop activities

By Gerald Businge

This story was produced as part of theAfrica Reporting Project with sponsorship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 

5 Responses to "Uganda Farmers Contend with Seeds of Uncertainty"

  1. Pingback: MPs ask government to stop sale of fake seeds on Uganda market | Uganda Multimedia News and Information

  2. Senfuka Samuel  April 22, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    I have ever been fallen prey of fake seeds (maize) and agro-chemicals. It seems no one regulates this sub-sector and many farmers are duped out there. Actually some of the fake dealers stock the seeds and dye them with colors making it difficult for un suspecting farmer to tell the difference.

    Ministry of Agriculture must come out strongly to regulate and supervise the agro based sub-sector to save the farmers.

    Reply
  3. Smithd1  April 30, 2016 at 8:42 am

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    Reply
  4. John isingoma  July 20, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Well done piece. Thank you for sharing with me Gerald. This article comes at a time when am seriously considering to venture into commercial farming. It has helped me a great deal.

    Reply
  5. jepara crafters  January 12, 2017 at 7:45 am

    They price the least but won’t final long.

    Reply

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