By Collins Mtika

Fifty-six-year-old Abraham Munthali is a local farmer from Mzimba District in northern Malawi and has been a farmer for more than 20 years. However, he admits he has never believed in using hybrid seeds but adopted them because many farmers were abandoning traditional seeds in favour new varieties.

 “But now Agricultural officials are advising us to plant local seeds because they are weather resistant,” Munthali said.

In the late 1990s, scientists told farmers in Malawi to abandon their traditional crop varieties. The experts argued that the yield was too low. Moreover, up-to-date hybrid seeds were supposed to be more resistant to pests and diseases.

Today, however, the same researchers are telling farmers to restore traditional crops and this has culminated in the emergence of community seed banks in some parts of the country and the increase in their usage.

Team leader for Seed Certification and Quality Control for the Ministry of Agriculture’s Seed Services Unit, Grace Kaudzu underscores the importance of quality seed in ensuring food security.

Hybrid Maize seed in a political crop in Malawi

“A farmer can have good land, fertilizer and water, but without seed, they cannot grow anything. And beyond that, it needs to be the right kinds of seed combined with proper management to produce an abundant yield,” Kaudzu said.

To date, Malawi has signed the SADC memorandum of understanding for the Harmonized Seed Regulatory System (HSRS) and has made significant progress towards domestication of all three elements of the regional policy: variety release, seed certification and quality assurance, and quarantine and phytosanitary measures for seed. 

“In order to improve agriculture, all components of the value chain must be strengthened. For instance, in seed systems, it is not enough to have improved crop varieties without seed multiplication, processing and distribution.

“Further, for more crop varieties to develop, farmers should be able to sell any surplus produced from use of high-quality seed to be able to buy more certified seed which will ultimately drive the seed system. This is true with any improved agriculture technology,” she said.

Locally, the Biodiversity Conservation Initiative (BCI), a non-profit NGO, is targeting 2500 smallholder farmers across the country and the major objective is to increase adaptive capacity to climate change among smallholder farmers in Malawi through strengthening local seed systems with community seed banking as a major focus.

Core components of the work include; multiplication of locally adapted seed varieties such as finger millet, groundnuts, beans, green gram, sesame, sorghum, pearl millet, bambara nut and maize varieties.

Drought resistant crops such as Cassava are also gaining momentum in some districts

Elizabeth Gondwe who planted legumes and maize accessed from the community seed bank heaps praises on this initiative.

“It’s about indigenous seed multiplication, farmers can access seed on loan from the community seed bank and then repay. The rest can be re-sold to the community,” Gondwe said.

University of Cape Town Associate Professor Rachel Wynberg noted that traditional seed systems are vulnerable because of modernisation and increased urbanisation, which are altering food consumption patterns

“There are also challenges with multiplying and saving seed. Traditional seed preservation methods such as ash or cow dung are still prevalent. But knowledge about these techniques is dying out – particularly given that more young people are migrating to urban centres,” she said.

Wynberg also said that seeds are also under siege as they are increasingly become commodified.

“Since 2000, the growth of the commercial seed market has almost tripled. More than 63% of the world’s commercial seed is now owned by six corporations; Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and BASF.  To date, most of Africa’s farmers still rely on traditional seeds. The adoption of hybrid and genetically modified seed has been low,” Wynberg observed.

She also observed that across Africa there is growing evidence of the impacts of seed industrialisation for smallholder farmers.

Despite low yields of some varieties, some farmers are still using them

In Malawi, for example, local varieties are increasingly unavailable because of neoliberal agricultural reforms that have subsidised fertilisers and hybrid seeds and promoted cash crops,” she said.

There are 11 index companies in Malawi, including Demeter Seed, which has its headquarters in the country. Demeter Seed does not have its own breeding program but does test and produce seed for the local market. It also carries out extension services for smallholder farmers, the only company to do so besides Seed Co.

Three other companies have testing locations, while five produce seeds, three of which (Capstone Seeds, Corteva Agriscience and Demeter Seed) engage smallholders in the process. Syngenta and Capstone Seeds are the only two companies processing seeds in Malawi, and Syngenta the only company with a breeding program.

Alongside the headquarters of Demeter Seed, the capital Lilongwe also has an International Seed Testing Association (ISTA)-accredited laboratory that the company uses to ensure compliance with quality assurance standards.

In May 2021, Malawi launched a new seed policy that has incorporated farmer’s rights and other emerging issues in the sector, replacing the 1993 policy.

The outdated Seed Acts 1996 currently governs the Malawi seed sector. The objective of the 1993 National Seed Policy was to put in place an effective seed system capable of meeting the needs of a wide range of farmers in a wide range of crop seeds. It was also aimed at making the seed industry sustainable.

The major challenge is that the infrastructure as of 1993 is not responding to current status of the seed industry with respect to services demanded and regional efforts to harmonize seed laws.  This entails that despite having the updated seed policy challenges still exists.  

The Seed Policy (2018) seeks to enhance appropriate and effective seed regulatory framework, enhance seed quality assurance for better performance of agriculture, and establish reliable and internationally acceptable seed certification system. 

According to the Seed Traders Association of Malawi a number of antagonistic policies, laws and decrees impinge upon growth of the seed industry in Malawi. 

“Some laws promote while others are a disincentive to investments in the seed sector and agriculture in general.  In general, Malawi has reviewed the 1993 National seed policy and the new policy of 2018 take into consideration the needs of both domestic and international seed markets need,” the Association’s Chairperson John Lungu said.

Lungu said effective seed trade is one of the essential components in the attainment of food security in the region hence the need for government and all stakeholders to work together in making the seed industry vibrant.

Maize remains an important crop for Malawi

“In order to improve productivity in the agricultural sector, increased access to affordable and high-quality inputs such as seed is very critical,” he said.  

The Malawi government introduced the Affordable Inputs Programme (AIP) in the 2020/21 growing season with a two-pronged objective of reducing poverty and ensuring food security both at household and national levels.

Production estimates from the Ministry of Agriculture indicated that the country will harvest 4.2 million metric tonnes (MT) of maize this growing year, an increase from 3.8 million MT that was registered last year through AIP. This implies a 13.5 percent increase.

But four years down the line, some key players in the seed sector are irked by the government’s delay to enact into law the Seed Bill drafted four years ago in 2018.

They contend that the continued delays are costing the Malawi economy billions as the seed sector is currently being regulated using the old Act of 1996; hence, not in tandem with the emerging issues unfolding in the seed sector and that the delay is giving room to proliferation of fake seed on the market.

The Commercial Seed Bill among other benefits, guarantees increased farmers’ accessibility to high quality seed of various crops. It also guarantees increased forex earnings for the country through regional harmonization by integrating small and isolated local markets into one larger regional-wide market trading high quality commercial seed.

Investigations have revealed that they are influential politicians with vested interests in seed multiplication, politically linked private seed multipliers and business gurus who have been conniving to frustrate the enactment of the commercial seed bill.

“No wonder the prevalence of fake seed in Malawi is currently at 60 per cent,” said a source, who is also a member of parliament but requested anonymity.

Head of Policy and Communication at the National Association of Smallholder Farmers in Malawi (NASFAM) Beatrice Makwenda noted that hope for sustained access to high quality seeds was rekindled after launching the policy in 2018.

“The holistic seed regulatory framework has the seed policy, seed regulations and the Seed Act. The three pieces are complementary and without the Act, the intended new direction in regulating the seed sector is left in a void.

“At the heart of this, is a functional Seed Services Unit which is to be transformed into a commission after enactment. These prolonged delays are leading to a disservice to farmers in accessing good seed which is a foundation for good yields and better incomes,” Makwenda said.

Both the Ministry of Justice and Agriculture confirmed in separate interviews that the Commercial Seed Bill was still at the drafting stage.