Africa’s food security: Seed harmonisation to the rescue

Over the years, shortage of improved seeds varieties to drive food production continues to be a challenge. However, the need for the harmonisation of the seed sector took the centre stage when Director Generals of the Seed regulatory agencies in five African Countries visited the Nigeria Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) on a two-day study tour; JOHN OBA reports.

For Africa to get its agriculture right and by extension become self-sufficient in food production, its seed sector must be given the full attention it deserves.

Many countries in Africa are lagging behind in terms of good and improved seeds for its farmers, seed policy implementation, hence many seed breeders have left the shore of the continent seeking for greener pastures in developed countries. Genuine seeds entrepreneurs are few and largely unknown to farmers; farmers are being taken advantage of, while many farmers have resulted in using the old method of using grains as seeds. This has often led to poor harvest, poor yield and low level varieties of crops.

But experts in the industry believe that if African countries must overcome these challenges, they must harmonise. That formed a major part of discussions during the visit of the Director Generals of the Seed regulatory agencies from Benin Republic, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Tanzania were hosted in Abuja by the Nigeria Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) on a two-day study tour to the Council.

The study tour facilitated by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Nigeria was meant to enhance collaboration in the sector among African nations.

Common challenge

Welcoming the delegates, the Acting Director General of the Nigeria Seed Council, Dr. Ishiaku Othman Khalid, said the continent has a common problem, food insecurity, and it is an opportunity to find solutions to the challenge posed by the situation.  

“So we need to brainstorm and come out with a common position. One of the common challenges as a continent is the farm-herder clash; therefore, we need to think of developing seed systems that would be able to reduce the competition today between human beings and livestock.

“Then we also need to encourage our research systems to come out with climate smart varieties that will meet the test of time and present challenges.

“Nigeria seems to be on a very fast-lane, there are requests from Nigeria to go and support our sister countries, and we also make we bring them up to developmental stages where we are today.

“We have started where the production of seeds is entirely in the hands of the government as far back as the 70s, but today we have a very high number of private sector participation, and we believe everything should not be in the hands of the government because resources are dwindling.

“So there is a need for us to sometimes come together. We are also involved in trading, and trading is very important among us. How do we smoothen the barriers, how do we make it easy for someone to sell his seed in Ghana, and any other part of the world?” he said.

Digitalisation

According to him, NASC is now a member of these multinational organisations, and the Minister of Agriculture and Food Security will brief the nation in detail in a very short time.

“We are a member of ITSA, which means our seeds will be tested here in our labs as the one tested in America or anywhere, and very soon we will be a member of UPOF that gives a lot of rights to breeders and increases competition. With your varieties you are entitled to royalties, even if the person has left the system, and there are a lot of things we want to articulate.

“Digitalization has also been a strong point for Nigeria. We have been able to digitalize some of our processes such as a field inspection with the use of the seed tracker and the seed codex for electronic authentication and traceability of seed. IITA had been so supportive to achieve this process. Another critical leap is the inclusion of diagnostic certification for vegetative propagated crops.

“The NASC has a well-equipped and well trained manpower handling the molecular facility courtesy of the BMGF sponsored BASICS,” he said.

Harmonising seed sector

Also, the Director General, Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute (TOSCI), Dr. Patrick Ngwediagi, said the conference was to discuss issues that would finally allow the continent to harmonise its seed sector.

“We are here to discuss issues that will finally allow us to harmonize seed sectors in Africa. We want to be speaking the same language so that when we do trade, we can trade with the same understanding of quality as the aspect of seed.

“If you don’t harmonise everyone has their own quality aspects of seed in their own country or their own region and therefore when you trade with others it becomes very difficult but if you agree on quality standards, for example, procedures for seed certification then finally it will be very easy to trade and we need to trade among African countries.

“We don’t have to buy seeds or receive seeds from outside Africa while we have all the potential to produce all types of seeds. So the only reason why we’re not trading is because we have not harmonised.

“There are some initial steps that have been taken by the continent to harmonise but they have not reached their potential. So from these types of meetings, I am sure we can expand this potential and finally come up with a system that Africa can do seed trade. Instead of getting seed from outside we start trading and get seeds from Africa,” he said.

The Project Manager BASIC II, and Executive Director Nigeria Stored Products Research Institute, Ilorin, Prof Lateef Oladimeji Sani, who coordinated the meeting said the interaction with the DGs was deliberate and purposeful and that decision has shown that there is the need for harmonisation of the sector in the continent.

“Specifically, we are interacting with the Director Generals and Executive Directors of National Seed Councils from Tanzania, Nigeria, Rwanda, Benin Republic, Sierra Leone and Liberia. So it has a purpose. These are the leaders; they are the decision makers.

“Based on our interactions, we have seen the need for harmonization. You seed the definitions of seeds, and at what level do you want to classify seeds? Our own understanding of classification of seeds in Nigeria is different from the way they have it in Tanzania, whereas they are saying the same.

“That is why they have to harmonize that seed, their terminology and how do you promote the trade as to impact, whether we are going to achieve, is achievable because now, the Africa trade issue, AfCTA that is on board now is harmonizing all products and creating space for all of us to sell, so you must be forced to actually harmonise.

“ECOWAS is also trying to integrate the regional house to be able to have a kind of quality approach to our food systems and so you must definitely harmonize. So I think it is achievable, and we will definitely work towards it.

“So, like I said, the entry point for quality control of food products starts for the National Seed Council in each country. So for you to domesticate any seeds, to release, multiply, and scale it up the national seed councils are very important, and that’s why I asked them questions; ‘How comfortable are you to be able to control those things

“Until we harmonise, enhance the capability and capacity of our national quality controllers then we will be able to achieve it at the regional level,” he said.

Giant stride

Meanwhile, the Seed System Specialist, IITA, Dr Mercy Diebiro-Ojo, commending the process, said the step is a giant stride to the  harmonisation of the sector.

“As we can see from this conference, we have seed regulators from other African countries coming together and this is a giant stride to form a harmonized African seed system, and this is going to be a very good one that will benefit the continent as a whole and in terms of impact eventually. This impact is going to be demonstrated in the livelihoods of farmers as their yields will improve.

“They will have access to good and healthy quality seeds that are free from pests and diseases, and they can also make an income from it by turning them to business,” he said.