Seed systems smallholder farmers use
Received: 22 September 2015 /Accepted: 16 November 2015
#The Author(s) 2015. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com
Abstract Seed can be an important entry point for pro-
moting productivity, nutrition and resilience among small-
holder farmers. While investments have primarily focused
on strengthening the formal sector, this article documents
the degree to which the informal sector remains the core
for seed acquisition, especially in Africa. Conclusions
drawn from a uniquely comprehensive data set, 9660 ob-
servations across six countries and covering 40 crops,
show that farmers access 90.2 % of their seed from infor-
mal systems with 50.9 % of that deriving from local mar-
kets. Further, 55 % of seed is paid for by cash, indicating
that smallholders are already making important invest-
ments in this arena. Targeted interventions are proposed
for rendering formal and informal seed sector more
smallholder-responsive and for scaling up positive impacts.
Keywords Informal and formal seed sectors .Agricultural
investment .Markets .Smallholder .Delivery .Access to seed
Seed sector development specifically geared to smallholder
farmers has attracted substantial investment in recent years.
As examples, from 2007 to 2012, the World Bank funded
87 seed sector projects, worth $ US 513 million, with a
strong focus on the vulnerable (Rajalahti 2013)and,inthe
same period, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in
Africa’s Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (AGRA/PASS)
dispensed 112 grants totaling $35,244,164 and geared
to improving smallholder livelihoods (SourceWatch
The broad rationale for focusing on seed sector inter-
ventions is that seed is a vehicle for delivering a range of
advances, all of which can benefit smallholders. Seed can
be the conduit for moving new varieties, giving farmers
access to more productive, yield-enhancing traits. New
seed is linked to strategies for raising nutrition, as with
biofortified varieties selected for elevated micro-nutrient
levels (Bouis and Welch 2010). Further, in response to
climate variation, stress-tolerant varieties or clusters of
diverse varieties are promoted as ‘good practice’to en-
hance system resilience: multiple options can allow
farmers to shift crop or variety portfolios in response to
changing conditions (McGuire and Sperling 2013). Hence,
seed is a vehicle linked to promoting productivity, nutri-
tion and resilience: one entry point can potentially move
forward multiple goals.
Varied and often opposing philosophies shape seed
sector development and much depends on what actors
see as the starting point for system entry. Organizations
such as AGRA/PASS invest their resources mainly in
private sector seed business development, that is, in
the promotion of private commercial seed and formal
sector input companies. In contrast, select non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors have
signaled the need to support more locally-driven initia-
tives and particularly those that organize around what
are called informal, farmer-based, local or traditional
The writers share first authorship.
School of International Development, University of East Anglia,
Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK
Catholic Relief Services, 228 West Lexington Street,
Baltimore, MD 21201, USA
seed sector operations (e.g., GTZ 2000).
Activities here tend to
be decentralized and might revolve around local entrepreneur-
ship, seed banking, community-based seed production, or seed
villages. While proponents of formal or informal seed sector
development seem divided and even polarized in their respec-
tive zones of influence, farmers, in practice, often engage in
actions to smooth the divides. For instance, on the demand side,
farmers have long drawn from both formal and informal sys-
tems, accessing seed for different crops from distinct channels,
e.g., maize from agro-dealers and groundnuts from local mar-
kets (Sperling and Cooper 2004). On the supply side, an in-
creasing number of farmers are involved in participatory vari-
ety selection, sit on variety release committees, or access im-
proved varieties through local trader networks (Sperling et al.
2014). More recently, initiatives to recognize and explicitly
plan for an ‘integrated seed sector’have started to be sketched
(Almekinders and Hardon 2000; Louwaars and de Boef 2012;
Sperling et al. 2014), but pivotal points for catalyzing formal
and informal integration tend to be ad hoc rather than managed,
and are localized, rather than achieved at scale (Sperling et al.
2014). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), in
particular, is aiming to become a champion in this area labeled
BIntegrated Seed Sector Development^(Louwaars et al. 2013).
Worldwide, recent figures on the seed market valuation esti-
mate the commercial worth of these seed sectors, with the formal
sector being valued at $US 45 billion annually and the informal
sector at between $US 6 and 15 billion annually (Bonny 2014).
However, the figures are somewhat misleading in isolation.
Reflecting on geography, in the South, the commercial and in-
formal sector sizes might be more equitable, even in money
terms. Also, the focus on commercial worth does not necessarily
correlate with the value of each system to end-users: discussion
narrows towards immediate financial gain and away from real
impacts in farmers’fields. Finally, brute figures disguise exactly
who is served by these varied seed system domains.
If seed sector development is to be geared specifically to
smallholder agricultural development (practically, not just
nominally), strategic insights into how farmers actually use
varied seed channels might drive the seed sector development
process more centrally. Empirically, where do farmers get the
planting materials they sow, season after season, for which
crops, where, on what scale? Multiple descriptions of seed
system use do exist in the refereed and particularly grey liter-
ature —especially from anthropologists and agricultural
economists (Badstue 2006; McGuire 2008; Nagarajan et al.
2007). Existing studies tend to be of two types
: those that
focus on intensive single crop analyses and often at a
single site (e.g., Christinck 2002)orrelativelysweeping
regional and national analyses, which look at broad house-
hold socio-economic parameters and give insight on what
might be happening in select seed-related domains (e.g.,
Nordhagen and Pascual 2013).
This article focuses on the empirical. It is rooted in what the
authors believe is the largest specialized seed system dataset in
the world, some 9660 observations and growing. Analyses indi-
cate where smallholder farmers obtain seed for their most impor-
tant crops (some 40 across sites), crop by crop, under what
conditions (e.g., bought, loaned, exchanged) and how varied
trade-offs shape the use of some nine different seed channels.
The work does not claim to be representative of global trends, as
five of the six cases are based in Africa, with the sixth in Haiti.
However, the breadth of data is such that the article raises ques-
tions about support strategies for achieving seed system gains at
scale, on a sustained basis, and that serve the smallholder farmer.
It is this type of aggregated seed-specific research and analysis,
focused on smallholders, that might be used to inform where
catalytic seed sector investments should be made.
The SSSA: overview
The data presented in this article were collected in the course of
conducting seed system security assessments (SSSAs). Such
SSSAs are a relatively new method of analysis (Byrne et al.
2013;Sperling2008) and examine the functioning of all the seed
systems farmers use. These include the ‘formal channels’that
give farmers access to modern varieties and certified seed (from
the government, commercial seed companies, sometimes relief
providers); and ‘informal channels’(from farmers’own harvests,
social networks, or local markets) that provide farmers with a
range of varieties (modern, new local, local) and seed (or ‘po-
tential seed’) of varying quality.
In addition, the data encompass
more occasional, interstitial conduits, for example, seed from
community-based seed production groups (CBSGs).
SSSAs have a strong focus on smallholder farmers. SSSAs
are most often conducted in zones where seed sector interven-
tions are being considered to bolster smallholder agriculture:
through rural development or agro-enterprise initiatives, safety
net programs or short-term assistance. As such, these
Each of these terms has a particular nuance, and each is problematic.
‘Informal’systems are not purely ‘farmer’systems in that markets are
important. Neither are they purely ‘local’since both markets and ex-
change through social networks connect various localities. Finally, they
are not ‘traditional’in the strict sense, because they are constantly
Unfortunately, no figures presently have been put forward for the inte-
grated seed system interface.
We recognize that there are hundreds of seed system cases studies, some
of which cannot be easily characterized within this dichotomy. Here, we
signal what seem to be the main trends.
Not all grain found in informal channels can be used as seed. However,
there is a subset of material that is adapted and carefully managed, which
farmers save or seek specifically for planting. The authors term this ma-
terial as ‘potential seed’or ‘implicit seed’(Sperling and McGuire 2010).
S. McGuire, L. Sperling
assessments review seed security issues for smallholder farmers
engaged in market-oriented farming, for those more subsis-
tence oriented, for those in chronic stress situations, and, occa-
sionally, for populations marked by an acute stress, such as an
earthquake, or prolonged drought. While SSSAs do not explic-
itly highlight commercial farming areas, these zones are some-
times included within national-scale assessments that aim to
cover a broad range of agro-ecological and geographic regions.
Data from six distinct assessments are presented in this article.
All SSSAs were conducted between 2009 and 2012. Table 1
lists the assessment sites along with salient descriptors of their
contexts. Both South Sudan and Haiti were countrywide as-
sessments and covered a large set of agro-ecological zones and
crops. The others were more region-specific, although even
these focused samples embraced multiple sites and farming
The Zimbabwean assessment included four distinct
agro-ecological zones: the Kenyan one focused on drought-
prone regions in the east and coastal areas; the Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC) assessment was centered in north-
ern Katanga, and the Malawi SSSA extended across the south-
ern zone. Mapping and extensive characterization of individual
assessment sites appear in each respective SSSA report
and the reference list provides the individual case study links.
Most assessment sites broadly exhibited features linked
with rural smallholder agriculture: e.g., poor infrastructure
development, erratic access to agriculture development ef-
forts, little value addition in terms of agro-processing.
Further, three SSSAs took place immediately during or after
key events potentially affecting farming systems. The
Zimbabwe SSSA was carried out mid 2009, shortly after a
period of hyperinflation which rendered the local currency
virtually worthless (Hanke and Kwok 2009). The South
Sudan assessment unfolded in the months just prior to the
2011 Referendum as the country transitioned toward an inde-
pendent state, and the Haiti assessment was conducted several
months post-earthquake 2010. However, while the effects of
these immediate stresses were noted, in all cases it was chronic
stress factors that largely shaped the seed security scenarios.
For instance, in the case of Haiti, over 90 % of the assessment
sites fell outside of the areas of direct earthquake impact (i.e.,
including eastern and northern areas which had very little
displaced population overflow); in South Sudan, only c.
50 km of macadam were paved countrywide both immediate-
ly before and after the Referendum Period.
It is notable that the profile of sites broadly evokes the type
of areas in which significant seed system investments and seed
aid interventions are routinely proposed, ranging at varied
points from agro-enterprise, development, recovery and select
relief programs (Table 1).
Partners and sample
Across sites, upwards of 25organizations were involved in the
including government institutions (agricultural min-
istries and seed services), the United Nations (UN), national
agricultural research systems, national universities, non-
governmental organizations (NGOs), faith-based groups, and
farmers’cooperatives and farmer unions. Each SSSA engaged
at least five different organizations on the ground, helping to
counteract potential single institutional bias.
Site selection within SSSAs was geared towards general
zones where government, UN or NGO interventions were
being implemented. While some collaborating organizations
chose zones where explicit agricultural programs were
unfolding, in other cases, health or literacy campaigns were
the primary programs being unrolled. The site selection sug-
gested populations with relatively good access to develop-
mental, safety net or short-term aid.
In each site, on average 84 households were interviewed.
Systematic random sampling was employed (Levy and
Lemeshow 2008), interviewing every third or fourth house-
hold depending on population density. In total, data were col-
lected for 2592 households.
Standardized instruments were used across sites (see samples
posted at http://seedsystem.org). Beyond the quantitative
household surveys reported herein, instruments were tailored
towards understanding the actions of key actor groups, inter
alia: government personnel, farming communities, private
sector seed companies and agro-dealers, women’s groups,
seed/grain market traders, agricultural product processors, and
humanitarian and development groups. Further, the field instru-
ments aimed for a high level of differentiation in seed security
investigation. As one example, instruments distinguished nine
possible seed sources: farmers’own stores or fields (‘own
stock’); kin, neighbors, or friends (social networks); local mar-
; agro-dealers or agro-vets; community-based seed groups
The South Sudan Assessment took place just pre-referendum, in
October and November 2010. Officially the region was then known as
southern Sudan as this southern region was not yet a country in its own
This number of organizations is an underestimate. In some cases, pro-
fessionals participated in assessments as individuals, usually to learn the
SSSA methodology, rather than officially representing their organiza-
tions. Such individual participation is not tallied in the total.
‘Local markets’generally refer to the open air venue where farmers get
agricultural and other goods. Small kiosks surrounding these open areas
are also included in the term (see Sperling and McGuire 2010 for greater
Seed systems smallholder farmers use
(CBSG); some form of assistance : government (‘government’)
or non-government or United Nations (‘NGO/UN’); contract
growers (who are side-selling); or ‘other’.
All instruments were translated to the main national lan-
guages, with key terms further translated into local languages.
For instance, in the South Sudan SSSA, terms such as modern
variety, local variety, certified seed, local seed, and hybrid
were translated into 10 local languages (plus English) to ac-
commodate ethnic variations across the country.
Data set: scope and analysis
Data collection was followed intensively: the authors and oth-
er seed system specialists directly trained enumerators,
reviewed forms while in the field, and monitored coding and
data-entry at each site. Multiple stages of data-cleaning were
effected including via verification algorithms. A programming
tool allowed real-time synthesis by automating data analysis:
following data-entry in Excel, descriptive statistic tables were
immediately generated even for large data sets of 900+ cases.
Such rapid turnaround allowed field teams to garner (and val-
idate) quantitative findings and shape follow-up probing, e.g.,
why farmers were planting more or less than usual. Combined
datasets were analyzed with SPSS (version 22) and STATA
(version 11) for Probit regressions.
Given this range of processes–standardized tools across
sites; cleaning and cross-checking in the field; automated
analysis (eliminating some bias or user error); and follow-up
of outliers on site–the authors sense this dataset not only to be
the largest currently available, but among the more rigorous.
Certainly it is among the larger sets using a suite of standard-
ized, seed system-specific instruments.
Results are organized below along four farmer-centered ques-
tions; which seed channels were used overall, and for select
crops; how seed was acquired;who used specific channels;
and focusing on the varietal aspects of seed, how farmers
accessed new varieties. The questions broadly cover parame-
ters central to understanding seed security: seed availability,
accessibility and quality (McGuire and Sperling 2011;
Remington et al. 2002).
Which seed channels did farmers use?
Farmers detailed all the sources used to obtain seed, with their
exact amounts, for their three major crops during the most
recent season tied to the assessment.
Table 2presents the
volumes provided by each source, across all crops. Several
findings are of note: overall, slightly over half of all seed
(50.9 % across crops), was obtained from the local market,
indicating that this source, quantitatively, was the most impor-
tant of the 9+ sources monitored.
The local market was also
the dominant seed source in four out of the six SSSAs: Haiti,
Kenya, Malawi and DRC. For the two exceptions, market
access was constrained during the assessment periods:
Zimbabwe was facing a currency breakdown and localized
bartering of goods often substituted for cash payment. In
second, rather than primary seed source, albeit still an impor-
tant one. The extreme use of local markets in Haiti, almost ¾
Tabl e 1 Select site descriptors for seed system security assessments (SSSAs), with sample sizes for number of households interviewed (HH) and
number of individual seed access transactions noted (transaction: HH x crop x source)
SSSA Country (Region) Date Stress context N
Ongoing (chronic) stresses Immediate events
Malawi (Southern) 2011 Low purchasing power Repeated droughts –180 682
Kenya (East and Coast) 2011 Decline of maize, low purchasing power Repeated droughts –198 745
DR Congo (Katanga) 2012 Low innovation, weak infrastructure Ongoing conflict –209 548
Haiti 2010 Weak state, low innovation Earthquake (corner of country) 983 3056
South Sudan 2010 Weak state & infrastructure Pre-Referendum ‘fear’857 4017
Zimbabwe 2009 Declining purchasing power Hyper currency inflation 165 612
TOTAL 2592 9660
In each site, standard conversion rates from local units of measure to kg
were agreed with collaborating partners to get at the issue of volumes of
seed from each source. Often, these were well-established conversion
rates for local measures in common usage. Units for vegetatively-
propagated crops such as cassava were converted to propagules (cuttings,
pseudostems, etc.); to make these comparable with seed crops, quantities
of propagules were converted to kg equivalent figures by relating the
recommended sowing rate for a vegetative crop with a standard sowing
rate for maize. For instance, common sowing rates for cassava and maize
are 10000 stems and 25 kg, respectively, so 400 cassava cuttings were
converted to 1 kg for comparative purposes.
For this, and other tables, figures for ‘All Sites’represent proportions of
total seed volumes across all six sites.
S. McGuire, L. Sperling
of all seed sown, may be the highest recorded in the seed
system literature anywhere. This means that Haitian farmers
are turning over the majority of seed stocks season after sea-
son, in what can be a variable supply system.
Own stocks were also important, providing 1/3 of seed
sown overall, varying between 28 and 45 % in all sites, with
the exception of Haiti. The secondary rather than primary
importance of use of own stocks challenges several common
stereotypes: first, the notion that smallholder farmers will pri-
oritize seed saving in times of stress (De Waal 1991) and,
second, that own-saved seed provides the bulk of smallholder
sowings (e.g., Bezner Kerr 2013; Cavatassi et al. 2011;Guei
et al. 2011; Marfo et al. 2008). Simply, overall data show that
the locus of seed sources is off-farm, not within farm.
Use of sources beyond markets and own stocks was mod-
est. Seed from social networks supplied under 1/10 of total
seed sown. Agro-dealers, that is, the private input company
networks which put on offer modern varieties and certified
seed, proved to be an insignificant source of seed for small-
holder farmers, across crops and sites, supplying 2.4 % of seed
used. Key to emphasize is that for over 2500 farmers spread
across 31 sites in six countries, seed sources utilized were few
in number and overwhelmingly dominated by two: local mar-
kets and own stocks.
Within crop clusters
Tab le 3draws from the same data set, but from a crop per-
spective. Crops have been grouped into common clusters of
cereals, legumes, and vegetatively-propagated crops (VPCs)
to highlight trends by crop type. Maize was kept as a separate
category given its importance across much of Africa and its
prominence in seed sector development (Shi and Tao 2014).
The category ‘Other’groups 17 mostly horticultural crops,
generally sown in small quantities.
Tab le 3shows that the relative importance of seed sources
varies markedly by crop cluster. Local markets are the driving
seed source for legumes, providing almost 2/3 of the seed
sown. For all major legumes, markets supplied from 49.5 to
81.3 % of all crop-specific seed sown (with the ranges indi-
cating greengram and common bean market use,
Own stocks are especially central for the VPCs (e.g., pro-
viding nearly 80 % of sweet potatoes cuttings) as well as for
dryland cereals (sorghum and millets). For these latter crops,
small seeds and dry storage conditions present fewer chal-
lenges to self-storage than for legumes such as beans
(Sperling and McGuire 2010). Use of social networks was
noted in greatest quantity for the VPCs, partly as the market
option here is so limited.
As agro-dealer use overall was very modest, this channel is
better understood through examining use by specific crop.
The source has some importance for maize (see also Fig. 1
below), and for highly commercialized crops in specialized
production contexts such as rice in the Artibonite region of
or subsidized contract farming of cotton in
Malawi. If cotton were removed from the ‘other’crop catego-
ry, agro-dealer use falls to 2.1 % for this cluster. Of note, is the
near absence of agro-dealer use as a seed source for the full
clusters of legumes and VPC crops, that is <1 % of the total
seed sourced.This is an important gap area for clusters of crop
types key for basic nutrition and calorie provision.
Tabl e 2 The sources supplying seed in most recent season, as a % of total seed supplied in each SSSA site
Seed source SSSA country (%) All sites
Malawi Kenya DRC/Katanga Haiti S Sudan Zimbabwe
Own Stock 28.3 36.2 35.0 17.4 42.2 45.2 31.1
Friend, neighbor, relative 7.8 5.7 16.9 3.3 12.1 21.9 8.6
Local market 32.0 40.1 44.6 73.0 34.3 9.9 50.9
Agro-dealer 17.5 11.6 0.4 1.5 0.2 5.8 2.4
CBSG 0.1 0.0 0.1 0.8 0.2 0.3 0.5
Government 8.9 5.1 0.0 0.4 0.6 11.5 1.6
NGO / UN 4.2 0.9 3.1 3.3 10.4 4.8 5.7
Contract growers 0.5 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.5 0.1
Other 0.7 0.3 0.0 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.1
Total % 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Tot al kg
4529.1 5266.8 7688.9 42842.2 33536.1 4789.2 98652.3
CBSG Community-based seed group; NGO Non-governmental organization; UN United Nations (often the Food and Agriculture Organization)
For vegetatively-propagated crops such as cassava, propagule quantities were converted to kg equivalents. See note 8
The Artibonite is Haiti’s largest department, with the region being the
country’s main rice-growing area. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Seed systems smallholder farmers use
Maize seed is given separate focus as this crop is an
engine for public and private seed sector investment, at
least in much of Africa (Langyintuo et al. 2010). To home
in on possible commercial trends in farmers’sourcing of
maize seed, analysis was explicitly narrowed to countries
within the data set where: a) maize is the most important
crop, as measured in hectares sown (Smale et al. 2011)
and where: b) agro-dealer networks are relatively more
developed (Chisinga 2011; Odame and Muange 2011).
Kenya and Malawi clearly stand out here in comparison
to eastern DRC, South Sudan, and Haiti. While Zimbabwe
is both maize-centered and with a formidable commercial
input sector (especially when linked to cross-border South
African private company supply), input trade was near
halted at the time of the SSSA, at least for legal formal
Figure 1shows the proportions of maize seed sourced from
local markets and agro-dealers for these two countries. Both
types of markets are important seed sources, each providing
17–31 % of maize seed sown by smallholders. However, local
markets supply relatively more maize seed than agro-dealers,
even for this highly commercialized crop. Further, gender dis-
aggregation shows a more pronounced trend towards local
markets for female-headed households. Female-headed
households seem to steer their seed purchases towards the
markets where they can also buy other household supplies,
e.g., salt and soap, and an array food goods, such as chili
peppers, greens and fish.
Tabl e 3 Source of seed for most recent season, by crop cluster, across all sites
Crop Seed source: ‘most recent/current season’(%) Total –All sources (kg)
Local market Agro-dealer CBSG Government NGO / UN Contract
Maize 30.3 9.5 41.9 6.1 0.2 4.8 6.4 0.1 0.0 22893.8
Other cereals 40.0 12.1 37.9 2.2 0.8 0.9 6.0 0.0 0.0 15995.1
Sorghum 51.2 12.1 28.3 0.2 0.1 1.1 7.1 0.1 0.0 9835.7
Millets 44.6 21.1 18.7 0.7 0.0 2.4 12.4 0.0 0.1 1469.6
Rice 15.1 9.3 64.3 6.9 2.5 0.0 1.9 0.0 0.1 4689.8
24.2 4.0 64.4 0.6 0.5 0.6 5.5 0.0 0.2 50670.1
Groundnut 34.8 6.4 51.7 0.1 0.3 0.2 6.6 0.0 0.1 23994.3
Common bean 10.4 0.9 81.3 0.8 0.9 0.4 5.1 0.0 0.2 20778.8
Cowpea 26.7 4.4 56.6 2.4 0.5 4.4 5.0 0.0 0.0 1937.6
Pigeonpea 30.1 5.5 61.4 0.4 0.2 1.4 0.6 0.0 0.3 2010.2
Green gram 37.1 2.2 49.5 2.9 0.0 4.6 1.6 0.0 0.5 1597.5
VPCs 47.3 29.9 18.3 0.1 0.5 0.4 3.2 0.0 0.4 7441.8
Cassava 52.9 32.4 9.5 0.0 0.3 0.5 4.3 0.0 0.1 4951.3
Banana 16.0 26.0 54.7 0.4 0.8 0.0 0.6 0.0 1.6 1407.9
Sweet potato 79.2 14.6 3.5 0.0 0.0 0.0 2.7 0.0 0.0 609.7
Irish potato 38.8 36.7 22.0 0.0 2.0 0.0 0.1 0.0 0.4 432.8
22.9 9.1 33.5 22.3 0.0 1.4 8.7 1.5 0.7 1641.5
More minor legumes and VPCs are not displayed, but are included in totals. For the legumes: chickpea, Bambara nut, velvet bean, lima bean
For the VPCs: yams and taro
‘Others’include 17 crops, mostly horticultural crops sowed in small quantities, with a few in more appreciable amounts:sesame, cotton, okra, pumpkin
Fig. 1 Market seed sources for maize as % of all seed supplied for maize
in Malawi and Kenya, disaggregated by gender;♂=male-headed
households (n=186 for Malawi, 117 for Kenya), ♀=female-headed
households (n= 107 for Malawi, 54 for Kenya), total n=464
S. McGuire, L. Sperling
In terms of channels, the final issue addressed is the diversity
of crops accessed by farmers from the varied conduits. Some
40 crops were monitored in the data set, with most crops found
across multiple SSSA sites.
Agro-dealer networks supplied appreciable quantities only
for maize and rice (the latter mostly in Haiti), and marked
proportions (i.e., at least 5 %) of only three other crops, all
in Malawi: pumpkin (27 % from agro-dealers); mustard leaves
(15.6 %) and cotton (76.4 %). Cotton is the only crop within
the entire SSSA sample where dealer supply exceeded local
market supply: it is a unique case where specific commercial
enterprises provided seed to outgrowers. Legume seed, in
contrast, was only very occasionally sourced from agro-
dealers: cowpea and greengram reached levels of 2.4 and
Common bean, groundnut and pigeonpea fell below 1 % of
supply from agro-dealer networks.
Local markets supplied at least 5 % of seed for 26 out of the
40 crops monitored, and over 10 % of seed for 24 of these
crops. While the total percentages vary considerably by crop,
an important point is that local markets are routinely used for
seed for a wide range of crops.
In sum, from an array of at least nine possible provision
channels, only two presently supply important quantities of
seed to smallholder farmers: local markets and farmers’own
stocks. Markets additionally stand out in terms of their impor-
tance for accessing legume seed. Leveraging such markets
could be key for helping farmers enhance family nutrition
and improve soil fertility, two functions often associated with
enhanced use of legumes (Giller 2001).
Markets might also warrant greater attention due to the
diversity of seed and planting material they put on offer.
Having access to a range of planting options is a central fea-
ture for encouraging current farming system resilience and for
responding to the future climate-change spurred variations
(McGuire and Sperling 2013).
How seed was acquired
The analysis now moves to looking at the ways farmers might
access seed. Farmers might pay: through cash, exchange with
other seed, or render casual labor for seed (which was a com-
mon arrangement in Malawi and Zimbabwe); receive gifts;
take seed loans or money loans; and obtain seed through de-
velopmental or emergency seed programs. In select instances,
food aid also may be planted, especially when maize and
beans are given in grain form rather than ground or powdered.
Note that seed even from the same channel can be accessed in
different ways; for instance neighbors may give seed for free,
or seek cash, among other mechanisms.
Understanding mechanisms is key for several reasons.
Looking through a lens of vulnerability, one might want to
know the degree to which farmers give seed freely to one
another, especially to help poorer members of the community.
Focusing on commercialization, one might ask whether
farmers are willing to pay for seed and planting material, even
when obtained from a neighbor.
Relative importance of accessing mechanisms
Tab le 4summarizes how farmers in the SSSA samples actu-
ally accessed their seed. Almost 55 % of all seed was paid for
in cash, being bought from local markets, agro-dealers and
even from social networks (for instance, cassava stems being
purchased from neighbors while the crop was still in the field).
While some of these purchases were from the formal sector
outlets, a large portion also emerged from informal sector
transactions (also see Table 5).
Tab le 4also tracks other mechanisms for accessing seed. In
term of quantities, only very small portions were obtained
through exchange or seed or money credit, and gifts occupy
less than 7 % of the total seed accessed. All of these seeming
‘neighborly’functions are key to monitor, as it is through such
farmer-to-farmer inter-relationships that new varieties have
often been posited to move (Aw-Hassan et al. 2008; Jones
et al. 2001).
To double-check on such trends, another way of analyzing
access mechanisms was used, the frequency of transactions
(versus amounts, reported above). Transaction frequencies
may give different insights, particularly when only small
amounts are moved, such as a ‘handful’of seed given neigh-
bor to neighbor. The transaction frequency set of measures
gives results comparable to the seed quantity measures: pur-
chase is still overwhelmingly dominant amounting to 45 % of
all transactions, and exchange mechanisms remain very sel-
dom used, only in 1.3 % of cases. The main difference appears
when analyzing gifts. Using frequency as the access tracking
measure, gift transactions rose to 12.4 % of all transactions
involving seed access (Sperling et al. 2014).
All in all, the access mechanism data reveal a series of
insights. First, farmers buy the majority of their seed. They
already are ‘willing to pay’(an issue pursued in the next sec-
tion). Second, a focus only on dedicated markets, that is, on
agro-dealers or open local markets, ignores an important seg-
ment of purchases in the countryside, directly from farmers’
homes and fields. Several observations bear emphasis here.
The seed systems farmers use are already highly market-driv-
en. Also, tied to these cash layouts, there may be a large
informal market that has yet to be exploited in terms of serving
a potential customer base (Sperling et al. 2014).
The social network results also were somewhat surprising.
Seed exchange among smallholder farmers seems not to be a
major process in terms of seed quantities obtained or even
Seed systems smallholder farmers use
frequency of use. These SSSA-derived data on the quantities
and frequency of seed sharing show that actual farmer-to-
farmer seed exchanges may be less widespread than the liter-
ature suggests (viz. Jensen et al. 2013; Labeyrie et al. 2014;
Pautasso et al. 2013).
Absolute cash expenditures
Cash transactions, specifically absolute cash expenditures,
were further explored here for several reasons. The amount
of cash lay out might flag concerns among the more vulnera-
ble —can they afford to buy the seed they need? Also, from a
commercial perspective, cash spent is an important signal for
those aiming to catalyze seed business development. The
phrase ‘willingness to pay’is commonly used as a shorthand
for examining whether or how much farmers are willing to
pay for certified seed (David 2004; Fuglie et al. 2006). As seen
above, the concept is too shallow, as farmers do pay for seed,
and on a routine basis, and in cash. Hence, the concept might
be refined to explore the margins farmers will pay for different
qualities of seed. Also, some of this ‘willingness’has to be
linked to the quantities of seed needed. ‘Willingness’for a
small amount may have very different financial consequences
from willingness for a larger amount.
Tab le 5explores specific cash outlays by tallying the full
amount of cash payments farmers made in a given season,
across the crops, and in the quantities that farmers actually
purchased. This type of analysis unfolded in each SSSA,
and generally was tracked across two seasons as crop portfo-
lios may shift from one season to another.
Tabl e 4 Means of access for all
seed farmerssowed in most recent
season (% of quantity sowed)
How obtained seed SSSA Site (%) All sites
Malawi Kenya DRC Haiti S Sudan Zimbabwe % Kg
Own stock 28.3 36.1 34.7 17.3 42.2 45.2 30.0 29591.8
Exchange 0.4 0.2 1.2 0.8 0.3 4.1 0.8 752.2
Gift 1.8 3.3 10.9 2.1 11.4 16.0 6.7 6580.6
49.4 53.9 50.1 76.4 34.2 16.6 54.6 53893.4
Vouchers 9.9 0.4 1.7 0.0 0.0 0.6 0.6 638.1
0.7 4.0 1.3 3.0 10.7 14.6 6.0 5910.7
Seed loan 3.8 2.0 0.1 0.0 0.5 0.0 0.4 443.5
Food aid 0.0 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.1 1.1 0.1 121.2
Money credit 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.2 0.4 0.0 0.2 206.5
Other 0.7 0.0 0.0 0.2 0.1 0.0 0.2 172.9
Casual labor 4.9 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 1.8 0.3 307.7
TOTAL 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 98618.6
Lower purchase figures in Zimbabwe and South Sudan, reflect the same patterns described relating to
constrained market functioning: currency breakdown and poorly developed roads allowing access to vending
DSD Direct seed distribution
Tabl e 5 Average money farmers spent on seed for their three most important crops, in Makueni and Tharaka, Kenya, Long rains, 2011
Site Crop Spending (Kenyan Shillings: KES)
N growing this crop Local market Neighbors Ag-input shops all purchases % of total
Makueni maize 44 337.3 0.0 772.7 1110.0 57.8 %
cowpea 43 180.6 8.3 8.1 197.1 10.3 %
green gram 42 476.2 14.3 123.8 614.3 32.0 %
total (of 3) 994.1 22.6 904.7 1921.4 100.0 %
Tharaka millets 44 158.0 9.5 0.0 167.5 17.1 %
cowpea 42 221.3 23.8 0.0 245.1 25.0 %
green gram 54 566.7 0.0 0.0 566.7 57.9 %
total (of 3) 946.0 33.3 0.0 979.3 100.0 %
The approximate exchange rate was 95 KES to 1US$ during time of survey (15 Sept. 2011), (http://www.xe.com/currencycharts/?from=USD&to=
KES&view=2Y) though the latter half of 2011 was also a spike period for the KES/$ rate. Longer-run trend is between 83 and 88 KES / $
S. McGuire, L. Sperling
The example below draws from the SSSA in Kenya and
compared cash purchases from two quite distinct sites, both in
what was formerly Eastern Province, Kenya. The Makueni
site (Kathonwenzi District) exhibits bimodal rainfall at 800–
1200 mm annually, with maize predominating, along with
crops such as cassava, cowpea, and greengrams. The area
has a good sized town, Wote (about 56,000), easy access to
agro-dealers (generally <30 min) and is only 150 km from
Nairobi and on good macadam roads (i.e., 2 ½h travel time).
Tharaka Nithi, in contrast, is more of a classic drought-prone
zone, bimodal rainfall topping 500–800 mm, with millet and
sorghum predominating along with crops such as cowpea and
greengram. The area is 2 to 3 h from Meru town, over poor,
largely non-paved roads. Agro-dealer access locally is near-
nonexistent although satellite seed sellers sometimes pass on
bicycle or motorcycle.
Although the sites are quite different in terms of agro-
ecology and infrastructural development, Table 5shows that
farmers at both sites spent similar amounts on seed accessed
through local markets and social networks: 1016.6 and 979.3
KES in Makueni and Tharaka, respectively, about 10–11 $US.
These local market investments were mainly in cowpea and
greengram at both sites, as well as maize in Makueni. Such an
investment–equivalent to ½ small goat (SSSA Kenya) –is
striking particularly in drought–prone zones where farmers’
incomes are depressed by low harvests and few agro-
Additionally, Makeuni farmers made important invest-
ments in certified seed for maize and greengram from agro-
input shops. Farmers’greengram purchases at the time of the
SSSA were for varieties newly put on offer. In contrast, the
maize purchases were linked to well-known hybrid varieties
even though farmers in the 2011 community assessment had
indicated that maize had done poorly for many seasons in a
row (since the 2006 harvest) (SSSA Kenya).
Certainly, these are just examples, which need to be multi-
plied across hundreds of sites and contexts so as to understand
farmers’current investments and potential investments in seed
types per crop. However, these initial findings suggest that
farmers are investing in seed and already at significant levels.
Whether local market seed or agro-dealer seed, the scale of
expense is formidable from the smallholder perspective.
Who uses specific channels, with focus on local markets
Local markets emerge as the important seed source overall.
This raises questions of whether trends noted above, such as
increased market use for legumes or for female-headed house-
holds, hold when all factors are considered. In particular, do
observed inter-country variations (Table 2) reflect national
characteristics, or other factors such as crop composition or
farm size distribution within each SSSA? Probit regressions
explored how country, crop, household characteristics and
farm area affect the likelihood of local market use.
pendent variable was use of local markets to supply seed for a
given crop and household (n= 7 436 in this dataset), with
independent variables being countries (6), within-country sites
(31), crop clusters (5, as in Table 3), age and gender of house-
hold head, family size, and farm area (4 categories: <0.5, 0.5–
1, >1–2, and >2 ha; formula 1). As farmers provided quantities
obtained from every source used, it was possible to calculate
the proportion of seed for a given crop supplied by local mar-
kets; in this estimation, local markets were coded as ‘used’
when they supplied ≥25 % of a farmer’sseed.
To our knowl-
edge, this is the first large-scale estimation of factors affecting
farmers’use of local markets. Table 6shows the marginal
effects of key variables on farmers’use of local markets.
local market ¼αþβcountry.site þδcrop cluster
þγHH characteristicsþθarea farmed þεð1Þ
Kenya was used as the referent for country dummies, as its
overall local market use was intermediate (Table 2) and agro-
dealers are relatively well developed. Haitian farmers are sig-
nificantly more likely to obtain seed from local markets, ac-
counting for other factors, confirming this not a compositional
effect (e.g., because the Haiti sample had more legumes than
elsewhere), but rather reflects characteristics of Haiti itself.
Infrastructure and currency issues noted above help explain
why farmers in South Sudan and Zimbabwe are significantly
less likely to use local markets. Maize is the referent group for
crop clusters; while there is little difference between maize
and other cereals, legumes are significantly more likely to be
obtained from local markets, vegetative crops less. This sup-
ports arguments made elsewhere (Sperling and McGuire
2010) that local market provision is especially important for
Insights into who uses local markets emerged from house-
hold characteristics. Younger farmers used markets more,
though the effect is not strong.
The effect of gender of
household head was not strong, and varied by country (data
not shown). Female-headed households were slightly more
likely to use local markets, though only significantly so in
DRC (p< 0.10), while in South Sudan they were significantly
(p< 0.05) less likely to use markets. Markets were sparse in
This analysis highlights correlations with the factors measured.
Gathering detailed household-level data on consumption or income was
not the purpose of SSSAs; such data would benefit future models in
producing estimations of marginal effects levels.
Other specifications - local market use (any proportion); local market
supplies ≥50% of a household’s seed for that crop; and ≥75% - produced
similar results (coefficient signs, significance levels).
Models also controlled for within-country sites, but these coefficients
are not shown.
A 10 year age difference shifts likelihood of local market use by 2.9 %.
Seed systems smallholder farmers use
2010 in South Sudan, with minimal transport infrastructure, so
it is perhaps unsurprising that women there were less likely to
make long journeys to obtain seed. Finally, cultivated land
was used to differentiate wealth categories among small-
In all individual country regressions, the tendency
is for greater market use for smaller farms, though this is only
significant (at p < 0.10) in DRC. These data suggest that local
markets may be particularly important for relatively vulnera-
ble farmers (poorer, or female-headed households).
Table 7shows % of seed from the DRC assessment in
relation to farm area as a clear illustration of this wider trend.
Those with smaller farms access over ½ their seed from local
markets (across crops) versus less than 1/5 for those in the
largest land category. Some parallel trends were noted in the
SSSA for Kenya and from a number of other studies that
contained more extensive socio-economic background infor-
mation. In one Rwandan study from the early 1990s, the
poorer segments bought 90 % of their bean seed from local
markets for the main growing season, compared to 6 % for the
relatively rich (CIAT 1991; in Sperling and McGuire 2010).
Other quantitative studies report comparable conclusions: in
Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Ethiopia–the very poor
are tied relatively more to local markets for seed of select
crops than their wealthier neighbors (David and Sperling
1999; McGuire 2008; Sperling 1994). Future research will
explore further the relationships between wealth (and farm
area) and seed source use.
How farmers accessed new varieties
As a final theme, the issue of new varieties is addressed.
Within the context of strengthening seed systems and foster-
ing seed security, variety introductions can be a relatively
economical way to increase production quickly.
Overall, across sites, over a third of farmers, 36 % had
accessed some new variety within the previous 5 years (al-
though whether these are ‘modern varieties’or new local va-
rieties could not be determined based on variety name alone;
Table 8). While the figure appears promising, the findings
need to be interpreted in the context of site choice as general
SSSA zones were ones of government or NGO intervention.
This potential assistance bias might be seen particularly in
South Sudan, where about half of sample had received a
new variety but where, at the time of the SSSA, the formal-
sector research system was only just starting to be re-vitalized
after a prolonged civil war, and variety releases were very few.
The relatively low figure of 14.2 % in Haiti is particularly
striking, as that SSSA had the largest (983) and most
geographically-spread sample, spanning the country and
agro-ecological zones, and was hosted by seven organizations,
all with developmental programs. Besides the SSSA country,
the only other factor affecting a household’s likelihood of
accessing a new variety is gender. Male-headed households
eties (Table 9).
New varieties can potentially be accessed through multiple
channels. However, outlets providing the new materials with-
in the SSSA sample were weighted towards government and
NGO/UN channels, which delivered 2/3 of the varieties,
Note that most of the farmers in the SSSA samples would be consid-
ered smallholders, though communities regard the different farm size
categories used as indicative of important differences in household
wellbeing and vulnerability.
Tabl e 7 Use of own stock vs. local market according to farm size in
eastern DRC, as % of total seed used by that group of farms
Seed source Area cultivated (%) All farms
<0.5 ha 0.5–1ha >1–2ha >2ha
Own stock 17.8 24.1 33.3 77.3 35.0
Local market 54.1 51.9 49.1 17.6 44.6
N cases 174 250 93 27 544
Crops were not included as a factor in this analysis, as these were only
specified for households accessing a new variety.
Tab l e 6 The marginal effects of factors affecting a household’s
likelihood to obtain ≥25 % of their seed of a given crop from local
markets (standard errors in parentheses); Kenya is referent group for
country dummies, and maize for crop dummies
Factor Marginal effect
Malawi 0.00525 (0.0343)
DRC 0.0382 (0.0364)
Haiti 0.294 (0.0312)***
SSudan −0.185 (0.0275)***
Zimbabwe −0.363 (0.0662)***
Other cereals −0.0235 (0.0169)
Vegetative crops −0.399 (0.0188)***
Legumes 0.135 (0.0130)***
Other crops −0.0920 (0.0270)**
Age −0.00286 (0.000403)***
Male-headed 0.0116 (0.0121)
HH size § 0.00185 (0.00215)
Farm area § −0.00633 (0.00921)
Pseudo R-squared 0.1927
Significance: * p< 0.10; ** p<0.05, *** p<0.01
§: Household and farm size data not available for Haiti or Zimbabwe, so
coefficients here derived from regression models excluding those coun-
tries (3583 observations, pseudo R-squared of 0.12)
S. McGuire, L. Sperling
largely via free distribution. Local markets served as the major
sustainable source, but their performance has been highly var-
iable across countries (with limited presence as a source of
innovation in Haiti or Malawi). In terms of crop profiles,
maize comprised 31 % of all the 1676 new variety cases. A
further 18 % were for sorghum, and 7 % each for groundnut
and common bean.
Across sites, agro-dealers provided 6.8 % of the new varie-
ties (compared with 7.5 % of new acquisitions from social
networks). Agro-dealers as a source of novel material had an
important presence only in Malawi and Kenya, where maize
accounted for 79 and 74 % of the new varieties accessed from
Note that the site choice among SSSAs spanned
very different commercial sector contexts: dealer networks
were comparatively well developed in Kenya and Malawi; in
contrast, South Sudan and eastern DRC had virtually none.
As a seed source, community-based groups have a very mi-
nor importance in providing new varieties (1.7 % of cases). For
supplying volumes of seed, they figure barely at all (0.5 % of
what farmers sow; Table 2). Their relative invisibility comes in
spite of the sites generally being ones of NGO intervention and
of CBSG’s being promoted with regularity, especially by NGOs
and the UN system. The relativelyhigherfigureof6.4%ofnew
accessions in Haiti from CBSGs might be misleading, as it is a
proportion of cases where households did access new varieties,
and represents only 16 instances, countrywide (Haiti SSSA).
In sum, delivery channels for new varieties were poorly
developed across assessment sites. Farmers could only access
new varieties of most crops through one-off aid provision,
usually from NGOs or governments (the latter especially dis-
tributing maize). Local markets provided some innovation but
were linked to new varieties in an ad hoc manner, rather than
via a well-established set of processes. Projecting forward, new
varieties will not move quickly or at scale until more impact-
oriented seed systems receive concerted research and develop-
ment attention. In the public sector at least, there seems to be an
investment lacuna between the science of plant breeding,
which receives substantial funds, and the science of delivery.
Tabl e 8 Farmers who obtained a new variety in the previous 5 years and the sources of provision
Source of new variety SSSA Country (%) All sites
Malawi Kenya DRC Haiti S Sudan % N
Friends, neighbors, relatives 2.2 9.3 9.5 3.2 9.7 7.7 129
Local market 7.6 15.6 9.5 2.4 19.7 14.3 239
Agro-dealer 27.1 17.8 0.0 2.8 0.8 6.9 115
CBSG 0.4 0.4 3.4 6.5 0.8 1.7 29
Government 50.7 39.6 0.0 10.1 5.4 16.4 275
NGO / FAO 11.1 14.2 77.6 73.3 62.9 52.0 871
Contract seed growers 0.0 1.3 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.2 3
Other 0.9 1.8 0.0 1.6 0.6 0.9 15
ALL Sources 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 1676
TOTAL new varieties 225 225 116 247 863 1676
Households receiving new variety –N 127 138 44 140 438 887
No. Households in sample 180 198 209 983 857 2427
Households receiving new variety –% of sample 70.6 % 70.8 % 22.9 % 14.2 % 51.1 % 36.5 %
§ Dataset on new varieties does not include Zimbabwe sample
Tab l e 9 The marginal effects of factors affecting a household’s
likelihood of obtaining a new variety in the past 5 years (Standard
errors in parentheses; ** p<0.05, *** p<0.01)
Malawi 0.222 (0.0780)***
DRC −0.479 (0.0586)***
Haiti § −0.570 (0.0576)***
SSudan −0.425 (0.0614)***
Age 0.0000472 (0.00102)
Male-headed 0.0688 (0.0278) **
HH size 0.00249 (0.00348)
Farm area 0.0147 (0.0151)
Pseudo R-squared 0.1594
§: Household size and farm area data not available for Haiti; this coeffi-
cient derived from specification without those factors. New variety access
data unavailable for Zimbabwe
For all sources in Malawi, 77 % of new varieties were maize, in Kenya
it was 29 %.
Seed systems smallholder farmers use
Discussion: investment policy and practice
The work presented herein results from a large seed system
data set, spanning many crops. Overall, smallholder farmers
accessed 90.2 % of seed they sowed from informal systems,
with 50.9 % from local markets. In contrast, formal sector
sources were modest, even though several decades of invest-
ment have largely focused on either the formal public or for-
mal private sector (e.g., Hoegenmeyer n.d.).
To review select findings tied to current models: a) the
channels routinely supported supply an insignificant propor-
tion of seed sown by smallholder farmers; b) new varieties are
not being accessed sustainably through supported channels;
and c) the array of crops needed for production, nutrition
and resilience goals will not likely be promoted via a commer-
cialized formal sector approach alone. Simply, profit margins
for self-pollinated crops remain modest as once farmers obtain
the novel germplasm, they can re-sow their own seed
(Rubyogo et al. 2010). Also, for the vegetatively-propagated
crops, few viable commercial options have been identified
beyond some initial successes with Irish potato (Sperling
et al. 2014).
At a minimum, our results suggest a need to address the
imbalance in seed channel focus so as to give attention to the
main seed systems smallholders use, including several infor-
mal channels. There is also a case for broadening strategy
within the formal seed sector to enhance its scope for impact.
To spur more gains, it may be opportune to move program-
matically toward more integrated seed system approaches that
leverage the relative strengths of informal and formal sectors.
A range of indicative actions is sketched below for promoting
greater formal and informal seed system integration and effec-
tiveness. Most have had a trial phase in the past 5 years and a
few have had important expansion.
Promoting more smallholder-responsive /integrated seed
systems: entry points from the formal sector
There are multiple entry points being tested to help make
formal seed systems more responsive to smallholder farmer
needs. These efforts go beyond scaling up’more of the same’
and rather move toward re-designing some of the core param-
eters which affect the access of a range of clients to the formal
sector. Several examples are cited below.
Proximity of agro-dealer providers
Even for their designated crops (maize and horticultural
crops), formal sector outlets rarely can cover the full zones
of farmer need: for example, only 23 % of farmers in Nzaui
Kenya were within 1 hour walk of a formal agro-dealer outlet
(Farrow et al. 2010). Seed enterprises may be reluctant to
serve remote areas. Noted by one set of observers "For com-
mercial seed enterprises a key constraint is their so called zone
of mobility and most indicate that their produce can be sold
within a 200 km. radius…^(USAID 2013).
Licensing of non-seed outlets
Experience shows that outlets can be scaled out through build-
ing on existing non-seed networks. Key to scaling is quickly
to leverage conduits that a) require no new infrastructural de-
velopment; and b) have proven durable themselves, prior to
adding the dimension of seed sales and information. Good
experiences have been achieved through several ‘value addi-
tion’strategies. Seed sale has been added to rural ‘Mom and
Pop’stores which sell basic staples in both Zimbabwe
(through the CARE Agent Program; Zimbabwe SSSA and
NRI 2003) and Timor-Leste (through a Mercy Corps initia-
tive; TL SSSA). Seed sale also routinely takes place in super-
markets of Malawi. Colored green or pink maize seed, along
with clear variety labels, signals that seed is being sold.
Horticultural seed is also on sale, and, inadvertently, bean
seed, as the one-kilo packs bagged for consumption are some-
times bought for planting (Malawi SSSA). Within the super-
market model, there should be room to expand at least the
range of legume seed on offer.
Formal sector companies generally prefer to sell larger pack
sizes: typically 2-5 kg bags for legumes or 10, 20, 50 kg bag
sizes for the predominant crop, maize. Companies assume
farmers prefer to buy seed to cover their full holdings. In
contrast, research suggests that smallholder farmers often
buy high quality seed mainly to obtain new variety material
(Rohrbach and Malusalila 1999). Recent experimental pro-
grams have facilitated delivery and sale of smaller seed pack
sizes which farmers find more affordable. In 2012 alone, a
single project, Tropical Legumes II, sold 943,170 small seed
packs (100 g, 250 g and upwards) of six legume crops in 13
African countries (Sperling and Boettiger 2013). Some private
sector companies are moving to this model, at scale, e.g.,
Drylands in eastern Kenya packed 50MT of beans in small
packs in 2013 (Sperling et al. 2014) and AGRA now also
trains its private sector grantees to pack seed in smaller units
(Sperling and Boettiger 2013). Smallholders already spend
money for seed (Tables 4and 5); smaller packs can encourage
smallholders to try new varieties, and expand companies’
To get 90.2 % for informal, we subtracted from the total any source that
could have been formal: agro-dealers, government and NGO/UN and
contract growers. Table 2totaled these sources at 9.8 %.
National seed laws will affect the scope for expansion.
S. McGuire, L. Sperling
Promoting more smallholder-responsive /integrated seed
systems: entry points from the informal sector
The informal sector handles the wider profile of crops sowed
by smallholder farmers (with some notable exceptions of hy-
brid and modern open pollinated variety (OPV) maize and
hybrid vegetable seed). There are multiple entry points for
strengthening this sector: a) helping farmers to improve the
quality of their own saved seed; b) improving the quality of
seed on offer in local seed/grain markets; and c) strengthening
marketing and information systems.
Seed storage methods
Investing in good seed storage, that is helping farmers save
their seed ‘at the front end’(preventatively), should be seen as
a strategic investment (Walsh et al. 2014). Particularly with
vulnerable farmers and in high stress regions, better seed stor-
age options may mean less need for emergency assistance
when times get tough, for example, when drought or flood
or other stresses require multiple sowings. Advantages for
farmers in storing their own seed include: cash outlays are
reduced, seed is available on time and just nearby, and varie-
ties and management requirements (including modern varie-
ties they have stored) are familiar to them (Walsh et al. 2014).
Unfortunately, farmers often struggle to prevent storage
losses, especially with maize and legumes, with losses rou-
tinely reaching 30 % upwards (e.g., Meikle et al. 2002). Some
new storage technologies proving effective include hermetic
storage bags (Mutungi et al. 2014) and small metal silos (TL
SSSA). Research homing in on the cost-benefits of different
storage materials and sizes might sharpen technologies further
(Jones and Walsh 2014).
Local seed market enhancement (‘potential seed’)
To date, little developmental attention has been focused local
seed markets. This gap is partly due to a reluctance by formal
sector actors to consider goods from such channels as
representing potential seed at all, and their assessing use of
market seed as ‘risky’(Lipper et al. 2010;Sperlingand
McGuire 2010). In contrast, farmers in select parts of the
world explicitly use the market to defer risk: they sell legumes
at harvest and buy back seed at sowing time, so as to transfer
the risk of storage losses over to traders (example, Haiti
Variety quality and markets Seed/grain traders are generally
left out of formal seed sector planning but they could be im-
portant partners in moving new varieties. Distribution of vari-
ety samples (to stimulate demand); sale of small packets of
certified seed in open market venues; and sale of modern
varieties in bulk are options that have had some initial
successes in parts of east and central Africa (McGuire and
Sperling 2008). The volumes moved by traders and their geo-
graphic scope of action make them interesting candidates for
broadening access to new varieties among smallholders, even
in more isolated regions. Conditioning and storage issues
would need to be addressed if stock turnover is slow and
any certified seed sale via trader networks would need to be
aligned with country-specific seed law regulations (Sperling
et al. 2014).
Seed quality and markets Seed/grain traders could also be
partners in improving the seed quality per se. Large traders
(e.g., moving 50–200 MT/season in the SSSAs monitored)
have been known to respond to quality innovations if new
business opportunities arise. For example, in order to partici-
pate in CARE’s seed relief program in eastern Ethiopia in
2002, traders adopted several seed quality enhancing prac-
tices: improving warehouse conditions, maintaining specific
seed stores, separating out specific varieties (McGuire and
Sperling 2008). The same phenomenon of heightening quality
has been observed with food procurement. Traders working
with the World Food Program’s Purchase 4 Progress Program
(P4P) made investments in quality assurance equipment
which purportedly led to better quality of food products found
in local markets http://www.wfp.org/purchase-progress/news/
Marketing information systems for informal/integrated sector
Seed-related information systems need to be vastly improved
to capture the potential of an evolving, more integrated seed
sector (see also Audi et al. 2010). Traders might be one im-
portant channel to engage more fully. Examples of types of
information traders might provide farmers could include, inter
alia: a) existence of new varieties and their traits; b) location
of potential supplies; c) information from others who have
tested the materials. Equipping traders with up-to-date seed-
related information would raise awareness quickly among
smallholder clients, but also among other trader suppliers
serving remote communities. As with the case of small packs,
engaging large traders as information conduits could facilitate
important scaling benefits.
Farmers themselves could increasingly access this focused
information directly, were it readily available. Even in Africa,
some 86 % of the population currently has access to mobile
in-africa/), including many who live in rural areas. Current
information approaches such as field demonstrations,
agricultural shows, posters and technical leaflets tend to
describe variety attributes and provide one-way communica-
tion with farmers. Minimally, those testing any new varieties,
especially in on-farm trials, should be linked systematically to
Seed systems smallholder farmers use
two-way, mobile feedback systems (van Etten 2011). Also,
experimental initiatives might aim to link mobile phone use
with information on seed availability and supplier locations
(e.g., Farrow et al. 2011).
The central message of these select examples is that local
markets are the main source for smallholder farmer seed yet
currently remain outside the scope of explicit and supportive
seed sector interventions. Given that seed/grain markets pro-
vide not just the bulk ofseed in absolute quantities, but are key
for accessing a portfolio of crops, including most legumes,
such an omission seems shortsighted. Certainly, those with a
development vision toward nutrition-sensitive agriculture and
more resilient farming systems might analyze the case of local
seed/grain strengthening as one of unrealized potential.
All seed sectors have to be strengthened to deliver the types of
products needed to catalyze smallholder advances: to encour-
age increased production; nutritional gains; and to foster farm-
ing system resilience. ‘More of the same’seems unwise as the
bulk of varieties and absolute quantities of seed are not now
being presently accessed through the channels routinely sup-
ported by development efforts. As a concomitant message,
continued public-sector breeding efforts may not realize their
investments if varieties cannot be delivered in more sustain-
able ways, but also quickly and at scale. Variety use by
farmers should be a dynamic process, with additions or sub-
stitutions as better options become available.
Overall, the data show that seed sector strategy has to be-
come more smallholder-focused and that sharpened goals
have to drive the types of approaches used (Sperling and
McGuire 2012). For instance, brute production gains require
a distinct strategy from those aiming for system resilience
through offering a portfolio of crops and varieties. The data
also show that impressive results, at scale, are not necessarily
achieved by focusing on the more common metrics used to
measure seed sector success. Examples include Btons of seed
produced^which is often only a function of how much finan-
cial assistance has been allotted or ‘value of seed sector’,
which looks only at the supply side monies earned. To move
towards more impact-oriented seed sector development, our
metrics might also be broadened especiallyto put emphasis on
the catalytic options which show that seed channels –formal,
informal and integrated combinations –are actually working
to reach smallholders with the seed products and information
that such farmers want and need.
Acknowledgments We acknowledge the support of the United States
Agency for International Development/US Office of Foreign Disaster
Assistance, for funding the development of the SSSA and the implemen-
tation of the case studies, and, in particular, thank Drs. Julie March and
Eric Witte. The work of dedicated field teams in Haiti, Zimbabwe, South
Sudan and Kenya, Malawiand the Democratic Republic of Congo isalso
gratefully noted, as is the assistance of Borja Perez-Viana with statistical
analysis. Finally, thanks to the four reviewers who shared detailed and
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative
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Shawn McGuire is a Senior Lec-
turer in Natural Resources, in the
School of International Develop-
ment, University of East Anglia
(Norwich, UK). His research on
smallholder farmers’use of seed
systems seeks to promote better
policy and practice around technol-
ogy transfer and food security,
across a number of developing
countries. Much of this work, in
collaboration with Sperling, is gath-
ered in the website www.
seedsystem.org. Other research
interests include understanding the
challenges facing innovation systems in developing countries as they build
capacity in agricultural biotechnology (molecular breeding), and the political
debates surrounding genetic resource management. He has authored over 25
articles or book chapters: besides those cited above, recent ones include:
BFarmer seed networks make a limited contribution to agriculture? Four
common misconceptions.^(Coomes et al., Food Policy), and BMeasuring
effectiveness, efficiency and equity in an experimental Payments for
Ecosystem Services trial.^(Martin et al., Global Environmental Change).
S. McGuire, L. Sperling
Louise Sperling is a Senior Tech-
nical Advisor on Seed Systems
for Catholic Relief Services
(CRS), and previously a Principal
Researcher-Consultant at the In-
ternational Center for Tropical
Agriculture (CIAT). She co-
founded www.seedsystem.org as
a resource for practice, research
and policy, and has managed and
technically backstopped projects
and programs in over 25
countries of Africa, Asia and
Latin America. Her focus is on
impact-oriented plant breeding,
seed systems, and delivery approaches—with all programs centering
around gender equity and farmer empowerment. Sperling’swork
embraces, ‘normal’small farmer and pastoral systems as well as high
stress ones: for instance she led research missions linked to: the 1983–
85 seminal drought across East Africa, the 1994 civil war and genocide in
Rwanda, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the 2011 Referendum in South
Sudan. Widely consulting for a range of agencies (the UN system, the
World Bank, Rockefeller, northern and southern NGOs), Sperling is the
author of over seventy articles and book chapters, including, recent
pieces: Making seed systems more resilient to stress (Global Environmen-
tal Change, 2013, McGuire and Sperling); Persistent myths about emer-
gency seed aid (Food Policy 2010, Sperling and McGuire); and Bean
seed delivery in sub-Saharan Africa: the power of partnerships Society
and Natural Resources, 2010, Rubyogo, Sperling, Muthoni and
Seed systems smallholder farmers use