Seeds, as tiny as they are, anchor this country and everything in it. Push them out of the farming equation, the agricultural sector, which is the taproot of the nation’s economy, will be cold and soulless.
With that, forex reserves will crash, 80 percent of Malawians will lose livelihoods and government will miss out on piles of revenue and, at worst, fail to meet the rising demand for social services.
Yet, the seed sector, before Parliament passed the new Seed Act this month, was left out in the wilderness with no vibrant regulations fenced around it. Weak laws have paved the way for widespread sale of fake and poor-quality seeds.
The evidence is as clear as the air.
A two-year seed system study commissioned by Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), whose primary results have just been released, exposes some causes of poor-quality seeds which include poor packaging and distribution practices.
Published late last month, the research monitored seed multiplication and quality compliance among other benchmarks.
Reads the report in part: “The study observed that there exists poor handling of seeds in transit which causes seed damage. Physical throwing of seed packets when loading and off-loading seeds breaks the packets and even the seeds which affects the seed quality.
“Seed packet breakages were rampant among the Seed-Co seeds because they are packed in plastic bags that fail to withstand the pressure in transit. Furthermore, it was observed that most agro-dealers that are not registered, do not comply with the seed trading rules.”
Agra country manager Sophie Chitedze says the two-part series, dubbed multi-year seed study, is being carried out in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development as part of a systems strengthening project for the seed industry.
She says: “The main objective is to ensure that every player along the seed value-chain is compliant to the seed laws and that the smallholder farmer has to benefit from this by buying high quality seed for increased productivity.
“There has been an outcry that most of the seeds circulating in the sector are of poor quality and that when the farmers plant, the germination percentage is very low and they have nowhere to complain.”
Ministry of Agriculture also acknowledges the presence of poor-quality seeds on the market while also admitting that the situation has exposed the country to significant losses.
Director of agricultural research services Wilkson Makumba points out: “The poor seed quality may affect production by 40 percent, in some cases.
“Government is pumping a lot of money into the Affordable Inputs Programme to help farmers buy cheap fertiliser with the hope that they will post high yields. However, all these efforts would be in vain if the seed is bad.”
He observes that fake seeds were being thrust onto the market by both unscrupulous traders and registered seed companies.
Makumba explains: “Unscrupulous traders take ordinary grain and push it into the market in the pretext that it is seed from some of the companies and yet they are just using those containers of those companies.
“Secondly, where the companies themselves are really not complying with regulations as such, the seed which they are actually distributing to the farmers are not of expected quality.”
He, however, warned that the new Seed Act will face bitter consequences: “We had problems with our old legislation which needed to be improved greatly. This is why we have reviewed it.
“In that new legislation, we have a deterrent; penalties which indeed some of the perpetrators, once caught and actually applied on them, will not do it again.”
The Act also establishes the National Seed Commission which will be responsible for regulation of the seeds, Makumba confirmed.
“Funding has been a constraint to monitor the seed industry but this commission will operate effectively since it will be able to get funding from government and donors. We also want to make it a little bit more commercial,” he said.
The Agra study has, in the meantime, recommended that the Seed Traders Association of Malawi (Stam) should conduct yearly monitoring surveys following up with agro-dealers that do not own a Seed Trading Licence, among others.
“Such agro-dealers should be encouraged to register and further be provided with required knowledge and practices on management of seed in shops and storage facilities,” the report reads.
Stam business development officer Supply Chisi says from the study findings, it is evident that seed quality may be compromised at every turn of the supply chain.
He, therefore, says that what is needed now is sensitising all those involved in the seed supply chain so they can adopt measures that preserve the seed’s high quality.
Says Chisi: “Some companies have weak quality control systems which result in poor seeds. The quality may also be affected while being transported, at agro-dealer level or while in the farmer’s possession.
“What needs to be done now is capacity building to ensure that we adhere to quality standards regulations at company level, capacity building to the transporters, agro-dealers and farmers so they know how to handle the seeds.”
Meanwhile, one of the seed manufacturers, SeedCo Malawi has launched a defence against the study findings that his company was a major culprit in poor packaging.
In a written response, SeedCo Malawi its commercial director Gift Kawamba says: “Seed packaging is determined by Seed Services Unit [SSU], and every seed house cannot package their seed until the package has been approved by SSU.
“All seed packets go through wear and tear during the selling process. This does not only happen to SeedCo packets.”
Meanwhile, the study conducted by Mar and Associates Development Consultants recommends the seizure of licences of agro-dealers that flout procedures.
“[There is need] to intensify training provided to agro-dealers and enforce compliance to seed training rules through frequent visits throughout the seed trading season to minimise loss of seed quality.
“This should involve revoking trading licences of agro-dealers that fail to abide by such rules, including failing to raise seed off the floor with pallets as observed in some shops,” the report reads.