Extensive quantitative data show that smallholder farmers make liberal use of local markets for seed in normal times and in stress periods. In fact, during emergencies, local markets prove more important for farmers’ getting seed than emergency seed aid itself [22
]. Further, on a continuous basis, poorer farmers rely more on local markets for sowing materials than do the wealthier; although all kinds of farmers (over 60% for legumes) access some seed from markets for a range of reasons [23
]. The key is that local markets continue to operate in stress areas where commercial companies have closed shop (i.e., conflict zones) or where they have never set foot at all (remote areas with little infrastructure).
This paper has started to explore how local markets function for seed. Up to now, such analysis has largely been uncharted, apart from [8
], a notable exception, and by seemingly opposite groups:
This paper has started to shed light on the functioning of local markets by focusing on one set of key actors: The traders who gather, move, sell and sometimes produce potential seed. In the spirit of further exploring possible trader roles linked to seed security, this paper proposes an initial framework to examine entry points of support to ensure informal markets can deliver the seed farmers want and need—via the contact point of traders.
4.1. Framework for Supporting Seed Security-Linked Traders
To brainstorm about support to informal markets and specifically, trader support, we frame possible actions using the seed security framework as a base of thinking [26
Seed security has three basic parameters: seed has to be available, farmers need to be able to access it, and the seed quality must be sufficient to promote healthy seed system functioning [26
]. Seed availability
is defined narrowly as whether sufficient quantity of seed of target crops is present within reasonable proximity to communities, and in time for critical sowing periods. Seed access
largely depends upon the assets of the farmer or household in question: whether they have the cash (financial capital) or social networks (social capital) to purchase or barter for seed. Seed quality includes two broad aspects: seed quality per se, and variety quality. Seed quality
consists of physical, physiological and sanitary attributes (such as the germination rate, and the absence or presence of disease, stones, sand, broken seed or weeds). Variety quality
consists of genetic attributes, such as plant type, duration of growth cycle, seed color and shape, palatability, and so on [3
]. In the table below, we have added a seed security feature on information.
This encompasses two-way information systems: to clients and feedback from clients. All seed security features—availability, access and quality—have an integrated information component.
Importantly, these seed security parameters are often described using farmers’ as the focal point (the demand side). Is seed available to farmers locally? Is it accessible and the quality of what farmers want and need? This paper shifts the analyses to the supply side—and specifically, to informal markets and traders’ possible roles. For informal markets, the actors might include farmer-sellers, collectors, brokers and traders working at difference scales. Table 5
presents our initial brainstorming attempts on seed security-linked possible interventions.
As suggested in Table 5
, traders have important roles to play in ensuring all aspects of seed security are reinforced, especially in remote and fragile areas. A good number of these roles are already partially implemented. In terms of availability, traders are already involved in procurement and in seeking out supplies to help with stress, as the Ethiopian case of gathering barley and chickpea seed concretely shows. For enhanced access, traders have selectively been engaged to sell seed (certified) in small packs where formal companies have narrow reach—although this practice has been limited depending on national seed laws. Moreover, for quality, traders have engaged in efforts to improve seed quality by storing better, especially through use of hermetic bags [28
], and even in separating out varieties and maintaining clean and inspected warehouses in response to a relief intervention. As an example, CARE in the early 2000s required traders participating in a seed voucher scheme in Ethiopia to construct separate seed storage, which many continued to use afterwards as they saw the benefits of growing the seed side of their business [29
]. The issue in terms of the traders’ recurring actions is to make these roles more visible and legitimate, to give traders better support to carry out key activities and to scale them up more routinely.
In other cases, particularly in terms of information sharing and leveraging traders for information dissemination, engaging traders in these key roles will take novel efforts. Grain traders have long been invited to engage with national crop-specific or cross-crop platforms [30
]. Potential seed traders, however, have been largely absent as it is formal seed sector representatives who are invited to the stakeholder table. The two groups (grain and seed) may see themselves at odds, rather than as serving complementary client groups and geographic regions. It may take a major change in mindset to stop seeing informal seed traders as the ‘enemy’ or ‘oppressive middleman’ and rather reinforce their positive roles as service providers for underserved crops, clients, and contexts. See Box 4
for possible trader roles.
Box 4. Multiple possible roles for potential seed traders.
In no particular order:
Introduce new varieties
Maintain and enhance quality of seed
Diminish storage loss of seed—take over risk from farmer
Serve as service provider in a storage function
Maintain local varieties and serve as source of local varieties
Serve as information function on good seed and new varieties
Serve as seed security function (provide seed stocks, in normal and stress periods)
Move seed to remote areas… (They may act fast, good social connections, social certification, knowledge of adaptation zones, planting times, potential seed demand, end market demand)
Each of these might be mapped more fully as a strategy for action.
4.2. Legal and Donor Insight into Embracing Trader Roles
In moving forward, one might ask: What do the seed laws say about trader roles in the seed arena? Is there insight into donor policies in reference to traders, again in the seed security arena?
Seed policies and seed laws are mainly concerned with regulating the formal seed sector, though there have been concerns raised around how such legislation may affect how farmers’ seed systems function [31
]. If seed legislation prohibits the sale of crop varieties that were not registered in the national or regional varietal list, or of seed that was not certified or quality assured, informal traders may be unable to operate legally [32
]. Reviews of seed policy impacts on informal seed systems tend to focus on biodiversity—what can be circulated, rather than who can take part in the circulation [33
]; but these reviews help clarify how legislative frameworks may affect informal traders, and where there may be scope to work with them more closely.
An analysis of seed legislation in 94 countries and 2 regional economic organizations [14
] found 28 percent of countries required—for commercial seed sales for any crop—that varieties be formally registered, and the seed certified. In such cases, seed legislation appears to offer no recognition for seed traders working outside the formal system. However, other countries defined exemptions to the application of laws. For example, seed laws in some countries apply only to a list of priority crops, with all other crops outside the scope of regulation. Some countries exempt particular transactions from regulation, such as sales among farmers themselves (for example, Zimbabwe). Such exemptions may allow space to work with informal traders. However, in many instances, the scope of regulation is not clearly defined in relation to informal seed systems, leaving it open to interpretation [14
]. For example, ISSD Africa [15
] found varying opinions in Malawi on whether potential seed sales in open markets were regulated or not. A follow-up FAO study [34
] examined actual enforcement of seed laws in 18 countries and found that enforcement action against unregistered varieties or uncertified seed was uncommon, even in countries where legal frameworks seemed ‘restrictive’. Enforcement action was generally focused on horticultural or cash crops (e.g., cotton, vegetables) where the impact on value chains of poor quality seed is more evident.
While there appears to be little evidence of enforcement actions taken against informal seed traders, their ambiguous legal status may make it more difficult for development agencies to work with these traders at scale (for example, to provide training or access to financial services). Some countries have relaxed regulations around variety registration or seed quality assurance for specific types of germplasm, to facilitate the commercial trade of diverse genetic materials (for example, the European Commission Directive 2008/62/EC, applied to landraces). There may be value in creating similar legal space to diversify the range of commercial actors, affording traders greater recognition, and supporting a path to professionalization, distinct from that taken by agro-dealers in the formal sector.
Donor insight. Traders who profit by buying from smallholder farmers when prices are low and selling when prices are high have often, in the donor sphere, been characterized as ‘middlemen’, a term which has informally signified a business person who profits off a stressed small farmer. Donor-supported approaches of forming producer groups, farmer cooperatives, and bulking of produce and seed have been attempts to shift the profit from middlemen to farmers. In many chronically (and even acutely) stressed locations though, conflict or poor infrastructure has the potential to challenge traditional market actors. Smaller, more localized traders may have greater capacity to navigate stressed situations, relying on localized networks and social capital to continue to move goods. Traders can be a key to reaching farmers where they actually purchase seed, even in stress times.
Understanding where farmers access seed has revealed a gap in service provision. Donors and implementers are often not focusing on where farmers actually shop (for certain crops), but remain hopeful that they will modify purchasing behavior. This dynamic needs to be reconsidered. If the major complaint of local market potential seed purchase is questionable quality, there is an unexplored potential benefit to making sure the seed on offer is of the best quality possible. There are few well-documented examples of this supportive practice in humanitarian programming. One emergency relief program in Chad [35
] included training of traders during stages of field selection, sorting and storage to ultimately raise the quality of what was put on offer. Traders might be the key to raising the quality of potential seed on offer in informal markets and could also take on novel roles, e.g., helping to forecast demand.
Note that building trader capacity in seed-linked assistance and/or development programs, currently may get limited attention as it falls just beyond immediate emergency needs and is not a key focus for more formal sector activities. That said, enhancing trader capacity may be absolutely critical to smoothing a humanitarian to development nexus. Traders have operational capabilities that are unique (and likely different from relief organizations or formal market channels). Support to a broader array of market actors, including traders, will require frank discussions around seed quality. It may also require a balancing of standards that meet the humanitarian Do-No-Harm premise while also allowing those in need to be served in a timely manner. Some donors have already come to that fork in the road, opening the door to provision of non-certified seed by ensuring other quality standards are met or exceeded [36