Over the last year or so we have been doing some work exploring how the Indian seed sector might contribute to African agriculture, boosting productivity and assisting in particular smaller, poorer farmers. Could the seed sector replicate the great success of the generics pharmaceuticals from India that have revolutionised access to low cost drugs, with many benefits across the developing world?
The work has been supported by DFID-India, and has been led by colleagues linked to the Future Agricultures Consortium (in Ethiopia, Kenya and the UK), as well as at the RIS in Delhi. The final report, put together by Dominic Glover, is just out. It is accompanied by a shorter briefing paper too that focuses on the generics drugs-seeds comparison.
The briefing opens; “Experts agree that Africa’s farmers need quality seeds, but the continent’s share in the global seed trade is very low. African countries often lack the institutional capacity to support the growth of seed markets in the continent, an issue that cuts across regulation and other areas. The supply of breeder seeds is weak and improved crop varieties are introduced extremely slowly. Foreign expertise and investment could help build capacity in crop breeding and other aspects of the seed sector, including management, logistics, marketing and the integration of new technologies.”
This is the vision, but what of the reality? There are some parallels with the pharmaceutical sector, but they can be over-stretched. The big successes of generic drugs emerged in a particular period. Today markets are much more competitive, and many of the successful generics manufacturers have moved on, merged or been bought up. Seeds are also a rather different product, and we have to differentiate between different market segments. Low cost, high volume production of quality seed may be possible say for vegetable seeds, but it is less likely for grain crops for instance, given the costs of development, regulatory restrictions and the marketing/transport/logistics challenges. So how ‘pro poor’ will a top quality tomato seed really be, and will it really be any better or cheaper than one produced in Holland, France or China?
And then there’s the GM factor, an issue that has had less resonance in medical applications of biotechnology. Genetically-modified seeds – basically transgenics – have been highly controversial globally. And also in Africa, where there remain restrictions on their use in most countries, including Zimbabwe (despite widespread spread of GM crops informally, notably in Zimbabwe’s cases GM maize from South Africa). But the Indian seed sector sees GM crops as essential for growth. Bt cotton (a pest resistant GM crop) has been a massive success in India since its formal release in 2002 (and indeed before – although with some serious qualifications about its ‘pro-poor’ success). Monsanto, together with the Indian company Mayhco, pioneered it, but today many companies market the transgene backcrossed into numerous varieties. Bt cotton has filled the coffers of the seed companies across India, but now the market is saturated, and the extension of GM revolution in Indian agriculture has been stalled by controversies about transgenic food crops, notably the furore that exploded around Bt brinjal (aubergine) a few years back. Business managers in the seed sector see exports of Bt cotton to Africa as a next frontier.
There have been various attempts to make links, facilitated in part by the US government and outfits such as the Syngenta Foundation (closely associated as the name suggests to the biotech company of the same name). And the most recent development has occurred in Zimbabwe, with the purchase of a majority stake in Quton by Mahyco (and so with close links to Monsanto) from SeedCo in 2014. With cotton in the doldrums this acquisition has passed off without much comment, but Quton is a significant player, with some fantastic genetic resources and much skill and experience. It was originally part of Cottco, and formerly the Cotton Marketing Board (see a couple of earlier papers I did with James Keeley on seeds and agricultural biotechnology regulation in Zimbabwe). The genetics it has were built through public investment in the Cotton Research Institute. Quton has been toying with GM cotton for years, but regulatory hurdles have prevented it from moving forward. This acquisition certainly positions it as a major player for a future GM-accepting Africa, despite the concerns.
However, this Indian (and indirectly, American) investment is one of few direct take-overs. The expansion of the Indian seed industry in Africa has been slow and rather tentative. Most activity is in East Africa where business connections across the Indian Ocean and linked to diaspora links has been the most intensive. This is why we focused our research in Kenya and Ethiopia, both of which have Indian seed sector links. We identified a series of mechanisms by which these are forged, ranging from direct seed sales, to local multiplication, to company alliances and mergers. None have really boomed as yet, and we were really looking at only first-stage commercial engagements.
What were the challenges faced? There were many. First is the international business context. India often cannot compete with the hyper efficient logistics operations of others. It may have low cost production in India, but it is not so effective at the trade element. Second, regulations around seed are complex, nationally-focused and often quite political. Some companies have got in trouble as objections to the testing of food grains for instance were made – not so much on scientific grounds, but on the basis of unclear risks to importing grains on national food security. Seed testing authorities do not have standard approaches, and each country is different. With markets being small and entry costs high, this is a challenge. Third, moving into a country, acquiring land for seed testing and multiplication and developing a new business is challenging. The whole debate about ‘land grabbing’ has heightened awareness around foreign investment. And when things go wrong – as has happened with the Indian investor Karuturi both in Ethiopia (over land grabbing claims) and in Kenya (over tax bills and labour disputes) – this has ripple effects that are difficult to control.
Currently, India is a relatively minor player in seed exports to Africa, with less than two percent of the trade, and ranking only 14th. Trade with Africa is growing in a variety of ways, and there are clearly useful skills and technologies that India can offer. But how this will be ‘pro poor’ and so support developmental trajectories is less clear. The ‘Green Revolution’ experience is often held up as the example that Africa must follow. But as the report notes
“The development of India’s own seed industry, as well as India’s Green Revolution, were largely directed and supported by public investments and policy frameworks. Even then, the benefits of India’s agricultural transformation were not evenly or equitably distributed…. If Africa is to enjoy an agricultural transformation that creates broad developmental benefits, then the public sector as well as civil society institutions will need to play crucial roles. It is therefore not only a question of what profit-seeking seed firms from India might accomplish in pursuit of their own commercial interests, but how improving access to modern agricultural technologies might create broad benefits for cultivators and consumers, and for rural and national development”.
There is much hype about ‘South-South’ cooperation and the role of ‘business in development’, but in a complex and often rather unprofitable sector like seeds for poor, smallholders, a more developmental strategy is needed that gears investment, regulation and wider support in ways that private goods (and profits) work for wider public gain. Holding on to public genetic resources and deploying public policy and expertise in support of the seed sector – agriculture more generally – in alliance with business (from whatever source) is, as explained in a now old paper with Shaila Seshia, the big, usually forgotten, lesson of the Asian ‘green revolution’.