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Essay: How power dynamics influence southern African seed and food systems

Access to seed is a vital factor in crop production, affecting which crops are grown and hence what food is available. This essay explores the power dynamics influencing three different seed provision systems in southern Africa, with a focus on Zimbabwe: formal seed systems involving commercial seed dealers and seed aid programmes; informal seed systems based on local markets, social networks and individual farmers saving seeds; and an intermediate system where seed is produced by community organisations.

The author is Dr Bulisani L Ncube, senior programme officer at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, whose PhD thesis analysed the relationship between seed security and food security. He explains how different stakeholders perceive each of the seed provision systems and their benefits and drawbacks for reliability, traceability, income, knowledge transfer and more.

Image: Farmer Elias Chirinda drying his jugo bean (Bambara groundnut) crop in Chimanimani, TSURO, Zimbabwe. Credit: Xavier Vahed for Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI). SKI has granted authorisation to use the image in this article.

Image: Farmer Elias Chirinda drying his jugo bean (Bambara groundnut) crop in Chimanimani, TSURO, Zimbabwe. Credit: Xavier Vahed for Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI). SKI has granted authorisation to use the image in this article.


About the author: Dr Bulisani L Ncube is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. His thesis was on analysing the relationship between seed security and food security focusing on Chimanimani district in eastern Zimbabwe. In his research he conducted household interviews with 227 farmers and 12 agro-input dealers, and also conducted 10 life case history interviews. The prime motivation for this research was due to his work on seed systems in southern Africa with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, where he works as a senior programme officer overseeing seed-related projects that seek to contribute to resilience in food security for smallholder households. Interventions by governments and donor-funded projects such as community seed production, seed aid, and input subsidies are used to address a lack of appropriate seed as well as high levels of food insecurity. This is done even though the relationship between seed security and food security is neither linear nor obvious. This motivated him to look at these issues in greater detail. Bulisani writes in his personal capacity and views conveyed in this article do not express those of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.


Setting the context

Smallholder farmers dependent on crop production for their food and livelihoods are influenced by many factors when deciding what to grow. These include the type of seed available and accessible, culinary needs, financial aspects, socio-cultural factors, and the environment (including the weather and climate). Access to seed is an important factor without which crop production would not take place in the first instance. It thus determines what sort of crops are grown and are available to farming households predominantly, but also for the market, be it in terms of excess produce sold, or crops grown specifically for the market. Seeds thus constitute an important part of the production stage of the food system.

This paper looks at the power influences of seed stakeholders jostling for smallholders’ access to seed in selected countries in southern Africa, with a particular focus on Zimbabwe given the location of my PhD case study. The power dynamics in the seed industry determine the type and diversity of food available for consumption and for the market.

Smallholder farmers obtain their seed and planting materials from their own preserved seed, social networks, local markets, agro-input dealers and seed aid. The first three sources are usually called the informal or farmers’ seed sources while the latter two are called formal or commercial seed sources. There is also an intermediate seed system, in which seed is produced by community-based organisations. This seed is not certified but relies on community-based seed quality assurance mechanisms and the FAO quality declared seed system.1

Formal seed systems2 provide new and improved varieties (developed from other existing varieties) of certified seed of consistent quality and purity that are regulated by national governments. The public and private sectors are the key actors in this system. These largely supply seed through commercial channels. The informal seed system operates at the individual and community levels and provides the bulk (60%-100%, depending on the crop) of seed for smallholder farmers while playing a role in the management of agricultural plant and genetic resources3 . The semi-formal/intermediate seed system is a blend of the formal and informal systems and can include the quality-declared seed system characterised by farmers and community-based organisations multiplying and selling small quantities of seed to other farmers within a local area, with minimal formal quality assurance4 .

The food system in southern Africa is quite diverse, with its influence from both traditional historical consumption and provisioning patterns, and the cultural impact of mainly British colonialism. The traditional pre-colonial legacy accounts for the small grains, legumes, yams, cucurbits5 , traditional vegetables, the gathering/foraging of wild plants, as well as small and large livestock. These foods are mostly eaten in rural settings, although health-conscious urban consumers are increasingly also demanding these foods. The influence of foreign and western culture accounts for the maize, rice, pasta, potatoes, and bread which are staple foods in urban settings, especially amongst the youth. A recent food systems study report6 commissioned by the Welt Hunger Hilfe in Gokwe, which is a rural district in Zimbabwe with township and communal settings, showed interesting results. It found that traditional nutritious foods locally grown and collected are eaten by poor communal households while the bulk of it is exported to larger cities outside the district. On the other hand, the wealthier households in Gokwe were found to be eating mostly imported less healthy processed and ‘fast’ foods. There is thus a tendency of shifting away from the traditional foods seen to be for the poor towards processed and refined foods related to ‘affluent’ status and convenience in terms of access and easy preparation. 

When analysing the Gokwe study and what is happening in urban cities, one can conclude that some of the determinants of the type of food demanded and consumed by people are their socio-economic status, cultural influences, perceptions, and ideologies on what constitutes good food.  The type of food eaten thus does not only serve to fill one’s stomach and taste good to the mouth, but also serves to project a status symbol.

The case for formal seed systems

The formal seed system provides a clear, structured approach to seed quality assurance that is tested scientifically by government and private certifying authorities. The seed is true to type. One can obtain standardised seed with certain preferred characteristics from seed companies since seed is packaged for national large-scale distribution. This is ‘convenient’ for customers to purchase and for seed aid programmes to use. Should there be problems, such seed can be traced to the supplier through the packaging and receipts.

The formal seed systems are not only favoured by the private sector (i.e., seed companies and commodity processors) but also by national governments and farmers, both smallholder and commercial. Seed companies and their downstream networks (wholesalers and agro-input dealers) benefit from the formal seed system which is under their control and is dominated by hybrids and Genetically Modified (GM) seed7 which need to be purchased every season, thus guaranteeing a constant income stream. The position of seed companies is strengthened by government programmes that purchase the bulk of the seed produced annually (ranging8 from 40 to 60% across Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, depending on the particular year and on the elections calendar) for their seed distribution programmes, which are used to secure popular votes.

Governments view formal seed as more progressive, in line with the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) industrialisation agenda9 . The formal seed system in Zimbabwe10 , for example, has been able to develop and market certified varieties of a limited number of staple crops – maize, wheat, potatoes, and legumes (specifically soya and sugar beans), that can also be exported to the southern Africa region. The situation is similar in other countries such as Zambia11 and Malawi12 . Most of the crops produced via this system provide the national staple crops (maize, wheat, and soya in particular) which serve as the basis of national food security in terms of calories, but do not provide the bulk of all required nutrients or micronutrients. National reliance on this system accounts for the limited diversity of foods available and high prevalence of malnutrition rates (stunting) on southern Africa, which is reported13 to be above 25% and as such is classified as high or very high by the World Health Organisation.  

Farmers that participate in the formal seed system include both large-scale (commercial) and smallholders. For commercial farmers this is the main (if not the only) source of planting material and it meets their needs for higher yields to obtain surplus production for sale. For smallholder farmers, participation in formal seed systems is directly linked to the market while the informal seed system provides them with the widest and most nutritious diversity for future planting needs, household nutrition, community and kinship sharing, while any excess is sold.

The means by which smallholder farmers meet their seed and food requirements in Zimbabwe must be understood in the context of the broader historical trajectory of its agricultural development. Agricultural policies in Zimbabwe have contributed to shaping access to specific crops and seed types over the years. Before national independence in 1980, the former white minority government promoted the selling and growing of hybrid maize and banned the use of farmers’ own varieties. This was a strategy aimed at increasing agricultural production and supplying food for the growing urban population. This enforcement continued after independence until the 1990s, leading to the widespread use and saturation of the seed market with hybrid varieties14 . Overall, this policy framework reduced the crop and seed diversity that had been fostered through farmers’ own seed provision and affected overall smallholder farmer seed security as most households had to purchase expensive seed, sometimes not suited to their farming environment.

The formal seed system is not without its challenges. Seeds from this system are comparatively more expensive, especially hybrid maize. Certified seed of other crops such as soya, wheat, beans, and groundnuts are even more expensive (in comparison to maize) and these non-maize certified options are also of limited availability in the market. Certified hybrid seeds cannot be grown repeatedly from one season to the next without losing their vigour, necessitating annual seed purchases. Hybrids tend to do well when combined with fertilisers and water availability, e.g., irrigation, but this factor becomes an economic burden for resource-constrained farmers15 . One of the challenges of commercial seed noted in South Africa and countries that grow GM crops16 is the issue of cross-pollination from neighbours which then affects farmers’ seed. Cross-pollination in this case would result in farmers’ crops being contaminated by transgenic material17 , thus diluting the genetic composition of farmers’ varieties.

The case for informal seed systems

I have noted that farmers’ seed or seeds supplied from informal sources have their advantages, particularly for smallholder farmers and their contexts. This seed is usually well adapted to local conditions, having been exchanged and bred in such environments over many years. This seed is locally available at the community level, and is quite affordable compared to formal certified seed. Informal seed can be accessed via social networks/relations amongst farmers, which helps financially constrained households. This is not to say that all farmers within the same locality have these social ties that enable easy access to quality farmers’ seed. 

Farmers’ seed provides the largest diversity across several crops beyond the four major cereals (maize, rice, wheat, and barley sourced mainly via the commercial system), including alternative varieties of maize, small grains, legumes, yams, cucurbits, and traditional vegetables. This contributes to farmers’ culinary, nutritional, socio-cultural, and financial needs. Finger millet (a small grain), for example, is grown in Zimbabwe not only for food needs, but also to produce beer which is used in traditional ceremonies. Farmers’ seed requires limited additional inputs such as fertilisers, while the seed can be grown repeatedly year after year since it is open-pollinated and self-pollinated. Assessment of the quality of the seed is based on the farmers’ knowledge and trust. Farmers’ traditional knowledge shared from farmer to farmer and from generation to generation is key to seed selection, quality, and seed preservation.

Women play an important role in farmer-managed and informal seed systems, with their activities including seed production, preservation, and seed sales. On the other hand, it has been noted18 that the formal seed systems struggle to provide women with seed that meets their preferences, while prioritising high value cash crops dominated by men.

The informal seed systems are favoured by smallholder farmers and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). Smallholder farmers, particularly women, are the custodians responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the genetic material. CSOs such as international and local NGOs and farmers’ organisations play a crucial supportive role. The international NGOs have the benefit of linkages to regional and global farmers’ rights-based networks (such as La Via Campesina and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa) and have access to funding for supporting smallholder farmers. The local NGOs and farmers’ organisations have the ‘grassroots legitimacy’ since they are anchored locally while having existed for many years, which has earned them trust from farmers. NGOs in general seek to align their agenda to the needs of grassroots farmers and become their voice in advocacy.

There are current debates in terms of whether and how to register and regulate the breeding and dissemination of traditional varieties, while protecting the rights of farmers – NGOs and CSOs are divided on this idea. One view is that farmers’ seed systems should continue to operate independently of external commercial influences that would usurp their sovereign power. The opposing view is that there could be benefits in formalising farmers’ seed systems to a certain extent, for example through registering farmers’ varieties. This, they believe, would lead to their recognition, enhancing the ability to mobilise funding for their development and enabling farmers to sell their seed via commercial channels. This could probably contribute to national governments recognising farmers’ seed as seed rather than labelling it as grain.

The work of governmental agencies, though more prominent in the formal seed system, is also quite evident in informal seed systems via the national gene banks. Their work has primarily been on restoration of lost crop varieties and assisting after the devastation from cyclones that have wiped out farmers’ food and seed sources. It should however be noted that most of the outreach work being done by the gene banks has received funding from local donors and NGOs, as state funding to these institutions has been very minimal (as is typical across state agencies).

However, farmers’ seed or seed from informal sources also has its share of challenges.  Although farmers have their traditional mechanisms for ensuring quality seed, such as smoking stored seed in their traditional huts and preserving the seed by mixing with traditional herbs and ashes, this quality is not verifiable via a formally recognised system. This may present challenges for outsiders who want to purchase the seed. Knowledge of the seed characterisation (i.e., agronomic characteristics, expected yield, culinary qualities, etc.) lies with the seed grower/breeder and is orally shared with others. The quantities of such seed available are not publicly known and are difficult to estimate. This makes it difficult for farmers’ seed to contribute to national-level planning. Some of these factors mean that farmers’ seed systems are not supported by government (whether through policy or financing), while others argue19 that national seed policies interfere with the activities of the farmers’ seed system. The seed policies limit farmers’ options for marketing their seed outside the local community, while this seed contributes to a wider diversity in their farming systems (ibid.).

Although the arguments above may seem to point to negative elements of the informal seed system, this depends on whose reality counts. For smallholders embedded in the informal seed system, these qualities are positive and serve to maintain and preserve the seed system for their benefit. The greater challenge I see is related to the desire to formalise this system that has been operating informally and independently for millennia. There are smallholder farmers able to produce excess seed beyond what they can store and who need to sell that seed to others to earn income. Most sales of farmers’ seed occur from farmer to farmer, in local markets and through organised seed sales at local seed fairs. One farmer I interviewed in Chimanimani in eastern Zimbabwe mentioned that she had been trained by the local farmer organisation to produce and preserve quality farmers’ seed. She was judged the best seed farmer at the district seed fair and was able to sell some of her seed. The challenge she faced was that not all of her seed could be sold in the local area, resulting in her returning home with some seed. Her desire was to make it possible for farmers’ seed to be packaged and recognised nationally so that farmers like her can sell beyond their localities. This is important noting that locally adapted seed can be used in other locations that have similar agro-ecological conditions. Although this could be an isolated case, it presents arguments for supporting the informal seed system to have the flexibility of selling seed nationally (or across wider locations) by farmers that produce excess seed.

When one compares the quantity and diversity of small grains (accounting to 194,094 t during the 2021-22 season – which is 13% of the total maize produced) and legumes and sweet potatoes (365,284 t) produced in Zimbabwe20 (the bulk produced via the informal seed system), one can imply that the potential of small grains to be complementary food for the urban consumers is there. The issue is not the capacity to supply the required quantities (as the bulk supply of grain to the national Grain Marketing Board comes from smallholder farmers), but whether there is sufficient demand for such nutritious food by urban dwellers. The urban demand from the niche markets for nutritious foods is still low but it is growing.

The case for the intermediate seed system

The intermediate seed system provides options for farmers to access seed that do not fall into either the formal or the informal seed system. This includes seed produced through farmer or community-based enterprises with less stringent seed quality assurance requirements than the formal system. Some of the governments that permit this system include Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia. Farmers’ associations and community enterprises receive support and capacity building, mostly from local and international NGOs. This system21 can provide farmers in remote areas with a more diverse seed portfolio than that provided by commercial seed channels (which are mostly limited to hybrid and exotic vegetable seed).

The main drawback of the intermediate seed system is that it is recognised in very few countries and has not yet reached a critical mass to showcase its benefits. The national governments are yet to be convinced of the importance of this system in contributing to national seed and food security, while NGOs (especially the local and community-based ones) favour the informal seed systems for reasons elaborated above. My experiences with community-based seed associations in Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia (even where the quality declared system is recognised) is that they are either producing seed via the informal sector (targeting farmer-to-farmer exchanges, seed fairs, etc.), or producing certified seed through contractual arrangements with private seed companies.

I participated in a seed project between 2013 and 2019, unique at the time, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and implemented in Eswatini, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. This project was developed to address high seed and food insecurity amongst smallholder farmers in specific districts of these countries. Farmers were initially recruited and trained to produce quality certified seed for private seed companies. As the seed companies found the specific seed types (open-pollinated varieties) less profitable than hybrid varieties in addition to incurring high transaction costs related to farmer mobilisation and remote distances, they pulled out of the partnership. Farmers continued to produce seed on their own with support from the project. Since they could not sell the certified seed without being a registered seed company, they formed farmer-owned seed companies to address this gap. This ensured higher incomes for participating seed farmers, and access to affordable seed for farmers in remote locations. These seed enterprises are still operational, albeit at a smaller scale compared to the period with donor funding. It may not be possible to apply this approach across different contexts, while it would require external financial support for several years to make such enterprises viable.

How the seed system impacts on the food system

The food available in the market is determined by what is produced in and imported by a country. A nation produces what it can based on many factors, including its comparative economic advantage, its agro-ecology, cultural and historical factors, and so forth.

Although the informal seed system does provide similar crops to the formal system, it additionally accounts for the greater diversity of crops that meet the nutritional needs of farming households and the nation at large. It includes small grains, a wider diversity of legumes, yams, and traditional vegetables. One can argue that although seed companies do produce some of the seed crops besides maize, they do so in limited quantities while such seed is also expensive for smallholder farmers. The diversity of such crops is also lower compared to that obtained from the informal seed system while also providing less profit for seed companies compared to hybrid maize seed. Besides maize, most food produced from field crops is made possible by the informal seed system. This is particularly the case with small grains and legumes such as cowpeas, Bambara groundnut and groundnuts.

Farmers have argued that maize from their own varieties tastes better, that the mealie-meal22 lasts longer, and that the seed is not easily attacked by weevils compared to maize from hybrid seed. Given the value placed on informal seed by smallholder farmers, they are more likely to produce nutritious food for their household needs that is palatable for them while also providing seed for the next planting season.

Personal reflections and conclusions

There is a tendency by the seed industry to view the informal seed system as a primitive stage of development that would disappear through developmental progress, while the formal seed system is seen as an advancement and a form of developmental progress. The reality is that the informal seed system has existed for millennia through farmer-to-farmer seed exchanges, preservation, and breeding. Although the informal seed system could be under threat, it has been resilient to harsh government policies and the socio-political environment. The formal seed system, though supported by government action and policy, nearly collapsed in Zimbabwe in times of hazards such as socio-economic and political instability and times of drought. During these times (especially between 1999 and 2008), seed companies struggled to survive and could not produce adequate seed to meet national requirements, with farmers relying on the informal seed system.

The growing problems of climate change and the need for food diversification and nutrition is making governments, NGOs, researchers, and development actors reconsider the important contribution of the informal seed system. When one analyses the urban supermarkets, there seems to be an emerging urban health-conscious elite that values these foods made from traditional crops whose source is mostly from the informal seed system, including the non-timber forest/wild products such as baobab, devil’s claw, and amaranth. These foods are displayed in the health/nutrition sections of supermarkets in urban areas with elaborate packaging that specifies their nutritional composition. As these are niche foods, available in limited supply, they tend to be quite expensive for the ordinary consumers who continue to rely on the staple maize meal whose affordability is maintained by government subsidy programmes. 

Some food and beverage companies such as Bio-innovation, Organic Africa and Bayoba have identified commercial opportunities that link local farmers with national and lucrative European markets. Although this provides opportunities for earning the coveted foreign currency, it is worth investigating to what extent smallholder farmers are truly benefiting from such arrangements.

At the end of the day, it is not a case of which seed system is better than the other. Farmers use both the formal and informal seed systems to meet their diverse needs for food, income and socio-cultural requirements. Rather than having an integrated seed system, which is quite difficult to implement in practice as the needs of different stakeholders can be sometimes conflicting, is it possible to develop separate policies addressing the unique needs of both the formal and informal sector? This would prevent side-lining of the informal seed system while support is provided to each seed system with the aim of contributing to better and more sustainable food systems and broader food security outcomes.


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  • 5This refers to the gourd family of plants such as pumpkin, cucumber and squash.
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  • 21Mastenbroek,A.; Otim,G.; Ntare, B.R. Institutionalizing Quality Declared Seed in Uganda. Agronomy 2021,11,1475. 10.3390/agronomy11081475.
  • 22A coarse flour made from maize.

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