Seed vouchers - not handouts - could boost drought resilience

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 5 Sep 2011 10:46 GMT
Author: Jerome Bossuet
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By Jerome Bossuet

The Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in 60 years and media reports say farmers are desperately selling their livestock and eating their seed stock.

To help farming communities get back on their feet, seeds will be distributed alongside food and medical aid, with the aim of helping farmers once again produce their own food.

However, some communities in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia have been receiving post-drought recurring seed aid for decades now and are still caught out. Is free seed distribution always the right answer to help these farmers?

Jabulisile Mpofu is a 39-year-old agricultural supplies dealer in Insiza district, Zimbabwe. The climate where she lives is arid with short rainy seasons and recurring droughts. She sells fertilizer, seed, pesticides and other farm supplies to make a living for her family of eight. The decade-long collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy makes earning a living particularly challenging for Mpofu.

A few years ago, NGOs began distributing free seeds and pesticides as part of their humanitarian food security programmes. That put Mpofu’s family business at risk - farmers were getting their seeds elsewhere and free. Her example highlights how seed aid can jeopardize local businesses.


While providing important help to farmers, handing out free seed can create a culture of dependence and suppress the development of local seed markets. In Zimbabwe, some seed companies stopped supplying seed to rural outlets, as they believed farmers would receive free seed from NGOs.

When there is an emergency, it is assumed that the affected community has to start from scratch with no seeds available, no resources and a flattened local economy. Often the reality is far more complex.

What is needed is the right seed aid approach for each emergency situation. Seed aid specialists Louise Sperling from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Shawn McGuire from the University of East Anglia want aid agencies to spend more resources and time analyzing the local seed situation, to know if informal seed markets and seed companies are still operating. Because one community differs from another, a blanket approach of direct seed assistance is not the best choice everywhere.

With seed aid currently being implemented across the Horn of Africa, we need to look at ways to include local communities in distributing climate-adapted seeds and to manage the potentially negative impacts of emergency seed distribution.

The way seeds are distributed is important. Seed aid programmes, for instance, can use market-based approaches such as voucher systems, to help both farmers and local agricultural supply dealers like Mpofu.


The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has recently assessed the Zimbabwe Emergency Agricultural Input Program (ZEAIP), funded by the World Bank. As part of the programme, NGOs gave inputs such as seeds to about 300,000 vulnerable households in 40 districts in the 2009/10 cropping season.

Aside from direct distribution, they used a scheme where families received vouchers worth $70 redeemable at rural retail shops. The idea was to reactivate the local retail network in a country affected by high inflation, rapid impoverishment and high dependency on humanitarian aid for many years.

Retailers were either paid a commission per voucher to provide a set kit of seeds and supplies to farmers (a closed voucher), or the farmer could spend the voucher on a choice of different seeds and agricultural supplies (an open voucher).

The advantage of the voucher system is that it spread the benefits of aid to local businesses – and did not rely on using NGO staff to independently distribute seeds.


ICRISAT’s assessment showed that retailers earned on average $800 in commissions through the seed programme, and 60 percent of them saw growth in their business.

Agricultural supply dealers like Mpofu say they were relieved that customers came to their shops rather than being given seed aid directly.

“I prefer the voucher system because I also benefit,” she said. “Before, farmers received inputs from other distribution points, not in my shop. But with the vouchers I got a small commission and customers came to my shop where they bought the other things I sell as well.”

Retail vouchers also help re-establish links between agricultural supply dealers, wholesalers and suppliers. ICRISAT’s survey captured the opinion of 46 ag supply dealers involved in the voucher scheme. The majority said it helped them created business links with Seed Co, one of the main seed companies in Zimbabwe, and even increased sales of their other products to customers.

“We have to move from direct distribution of seed to market-based options so that commercial market channels can be revived in Zimbabwe,” said Kizito Mazvimavi, ICRISAT’s economist in Zimbabwe. “But in some areas direct distribution may be the only option as there are still villages in the country with very little market infrastructure.”

Local assessments help determine which mode of delivering relief inputs can work best for each area, he said.

“Given the political instability and natural disasters that continue to affect many countries in eastern and southern Africa, these assessments  help us design relief programmes that can be used elsewhere. It also expands our understanding of how to rebuild agricultural systems after periods of shock,” Mazvimavi said.


Seed aid specialists McGuire and Sperling also have called for a rethink of long-term seed aid strategy. Besides questioning how seed aid is distributed, they hope to see changes in the types of seed distributed.

Lack of access to quality seeds by smallholder farmers during and after disasters is one of the biggest roadblocks to improving farm productivity in Africa, they argue. Humanitarian seed interventions could be a key opportunity to help affected communities become more climate resilient and have access to more nutritious food.

For instance, in drought areas it makes sense to distribute dryland crop varieties that survive hotter conditions and longer drought periods, rather than simply replacing lost seed varieties.

Promoting nutrient-rich crop varieties such as iron- and zinc-rich millet varieties or pigeon pea could also improve the diet of seed aid recipients.

If we look beyond the next crop season, seed aid could be the catalyst for setting up local seed industries of more drought-tolerant varieties, so that farmers fare better when the next drought strikes.


Under the Malawi Seed Industry Development Project, ICRISAT and partners train local seed entrepreneurs to produce improved groundnut seeds that have a high yield, are drought-resistant and are resistant to rosette, a groundnut disease that can destroy harvests. The locally produced seeds are then bought by the national government and distributed to farmers in seed subsidy programmes.

The approach both creates local jobs and gets better and drought-resilient crop varieties into the hands of smallholder farmers.

Seed aid is not necessarily straight forward. The success of seed aid efforts should be judged not on how many tons of seeds are distributed, but on how durable the help is for assisted farmers. If we want to help people out of the drought trap, we need to urgently plan the most appropriate assistance with a long-term perspective.

One step would be to support Mpofu’s shop by involving her in getting the right seeds to those in need. That way she will still be there in 10 years time, hopefully with a thriving local business supporting her family and the community.

Jerome Bossuet is a communications specialist for ICRISAT.