• How to achieve Sustainability in Development Projects 
  • The Key Players in Sustainable Development and their Targeted Promotion  
  • Seed Production and Quality Control under Tropical Climate 
  • Assessment of the Cost-effectiveness of Innovations
  • Only the Market knows the Seed Needs  



How to achieve Sustainability in Development Projects 

Sustainability is one of the most important, if not the most important, success criteria of development projects. However, during my 27 years of work in and with rural development and seed projects in African and Asian countries, I have observed that the projects have not achieved real sustainability. 

Development projects should not only produce useful results or effects during the project period itself or for a limited period after the end of project support. Sustainable projects should initiate a continuous development process, one that culminates in a positive development of an economic, social, environmental or other nature. 

In my experience, however, this is generally not the case. In the seed sector, projects of a similar nature have been repeated for more than 30 years, sometimes with three or more repetitions in the same region with the same target groups. However, the goal of a modern economically independent and sustainable seed economy has never been achieved, and the seed supply has essentially returned to the level of informal production and uncontrolled informal distribution and use. 

Investigations in a number of seed projects have identified the main reasons for this. The causes are not only technical, but also economic, institutional and social, mainly due to unadapted technologies, unadapted structures and a deficient choice and integration of private sector actors. In particular, the projects do not dispose of the appropriate tools to provide targeted and direct support to the main private actors.

The technologies and structures favoured by  international consultants and  national experts are not, or not sufficiently, adapted to the local geographical, meteorological, ecological and economic conditions, they do not correspond to the existing human and financial resources of the target groups. 

The following articles describe case studies with these problems. They propose alternative approaches to achieve more sustainable development processes and solutions. Some of the case studies deal with fairly specific problems and solutions, but you may find that projects in other fields of work have similar problems due to unadapted project interventions. The articles intend to show how important it is to analyse the given geographical, economic and social environment in order to develop solutions that can be more easily adopted, managed and independently improved by the members of the target groups. 

The Key Players in Sustainable Development
 and their Targeted Promotion

Do you know ruins of development projects? They were present in every country where I had the opportunity to work, whether in Asia or Africa: buildings and technical facilities of former state seed companies that no longer produce seeds. The seed units have never functioned over a long period without the support of external donors. Attempts to privatise these units or their production facilities, in order to then operate them in an economically viable manner, have not been successful either. 

When the discussion is about the lack of sustainable results of development projects, a variety of reasons are presented. In my opinion, the main problem to date is the lack of integration of important, economically relevant players. Without dynamic economic development, there is no sustainable impact of projects. That is why it is essential to know the key players at the economic level and to promote them in a targeted manner.

In classical rural development projects, two target groups are often at the centre of the support. On the one hand, the group of poor farmers or rural households, and on the other hand, the national and regional authorities and administrations responsible for the agricultural and food sector. 

Farmers and rural households get support in order to directly improve their economic and nutritional situation, or their support is intended to improve the general food supply of the population. In most cases, the projects try to reach as many members of the target groups as possible and to achieve positive effects as quickly as possible. To this end, farmers or rural households are often supported directly through broad-based training or sensitisation programmes.

Since direct financial support of individuals or families is not wanted or not permitted within the framework of development cooperation, the members of a target group usually have to join together to form organisations worthy of support. Very often, group formation is intensively supported at the beginning of the projects through counselling and financing. The non-profit status of the groups is often a condition for their promotion. 

According to the prevailing opinion, the existence of a state infrastructure, which includes political steering, legislation, public administration and control, is also considered a prerequisite for economic development. For many years, therefore, a large proportion of the funds and advisory services for projects went to ministries and state authorities. Many authorities were essentially established through development projects, and their day-to-day operations were often not possible without project funds.

Of course, the political leaders and state administrations of the recipient countries must be able to play an active role in development projects. They are co-responsible for project planning and implementation, or even the main partner responsible. To do so, they need professional skills, as well as organisational, technical and financial capacities. In building these competencies and capacities, they are usually supported by donors, through development organisations and experts.

However, state infrastructure can only have a discernible, positive impact on economic development in the recipient countries if it supports the key players in economic life - and does so immediately, not in the distant future. State infrastructure must therefore be adapted to the needs of economic players, or the state and development projects must ensure that economic players are also adequately supported. 

Donors and their development organisations have also recognized the important role of economic players, which are primarily private entrepreneurs and companies. In many projects, the promotion of small and medium-sized enterprises (so-called SMEs) is an important or even the central component. Nevertheless, development projects obviously still have difficulties in providing targeted support to private entrepreneurs or enterprises through appropriate funding.

In seed projects in various countries, I have repeatedly found that farmers who were already active in seed production and trade in the project region, were not supported. Very often, on the other hand, support was granted to members of “needy” target groups who had no or few specific professional experience. These, in turn, were supported as groups - groups that in some cases only came into being as a result of the project activities. The leaders or spokespersons of these groups often had theoretical or academic training as agronomists but no practical experience as a farmer, especially not as a farm manager.

Many of the groups I worked with were only interested in seed production because of the direct financial contributions of the projects. The interest in seed as a commercial product was not pronounced. For example, fields for seed production were selected, that were not suitable for the plant species concerned. Compared to the yields of "normal" farmers, the yields were below average. There was no interest in selling the seeds produced. Often the groups were not even willing to use the “improved seed”, produced with project funds, themselves in their own agriculture.

In many of the countries where I have been able to work, independent small farmers produce over 95% of the seed used to produce basic foodstuffs. These are seeds used by farmers themselves in their own fields or traded between farmers or in local markets. The extent of local seed trade has been seriously underestimated in some cases. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, officials said that farmers only use their own seed because they have no money to buy. 
In surveys, however, farmers stated that in the case of maize, in more than 50 % of cases they used seed they had bought from other farmers or from traders. 

This so-called "informal" seed sector, especially the informal trade, is seen by some experts and officials as a problem that needs to be addressed. Although the informal sector provides most of the seed for agricultural production of food, it is considered illegal because it does not follow the regulations of the Seed Act or is not controlled by the state. Both the state authorities and the seed projects find it difficult to accept producers, traders and customers of the informal seed sector as legitimate and worthy players and as partners.

There is no doubt that the informal sector has deficits in the performance of the varieties used and also in the physical and physiological quality of the seed. However, I do not share the opinion of some international and national experts that local farm seed, that was not produced according to an official scheme, is almost invariably poor or does not allow good yields. As I have been able to confirm through trials with local varieties and local seed, such a blanket, negative assessment is not true. 

At the same time, the informal seed producers already meet a criterion that should be very important for development projects. They operate, mostly for a long time, without external financing or other support. In other words, they work in an economically independent and sustainable manner. With the exclusive use of their own resources they manage to produce a product that obviously meets the specific expectations of their customers. This seed meets the demand concerning quality and price and is therefore saleable - despite the low purchasing power of many customers.

Among the informal seed producers there are many who are highly motivated to improve their production and the quality of their seed. The seed projects - and thus the experts and the competent authorities - should therefore take much greater account of the needs of these private players. The support may be through advice, training and perhaps also through supply of technical solutions. This support must be adapted to the specific needs of this target group. 

The focus must not be on the transfer of the most modern technology, but on identifying adapted economically viable technology and skills. The legal frame should not consist of mere copies of the seed legislation of industrialised countries. In particular, administrations must realize that good seed quality cannot be achieved by standards and government control alone, but only if a vibrant legal seed market is created in which producers and traders compete. 

The selection and financial support of groups of farmers through development projects is not specific to seed projects. It is also done in this or a similar way in projects that intend to introduce other innovations. As far as I know of agricultural projects, the same problem of lacking or non-existent sustainability also exists in projects introducing new cultivation systems or promoting new inputs and technical solutions.

So the problem of lack of sustainability also exists in other areas of international development aid. In my opinion, there is also an urgent need in these fields of work to select the main project partners more carefully and to maintain and make use of the professional and commercial skills that already exist. As far as the promotion of profit-making enterprises is concerned, there is also the question of whether development aid really wants to promote these enterprises and whether it disposes of suitable instruments for their support. 

Seed Production and Quality Control under Tropical Climate

Seed production and quality control systems need to be adapted to the local contemporary frame conditions of a specific region, the socioeconomic conditions of farmers and rural households and the environmental conditions as climatic conditions. Supposedly, most of us agree with this claim. This article tries to describes specific problems related to the quality of seed produced and used under tropical climate and proposes specific measures in order to develop an adapted system that allows a sustainable production and supply of quality seed. 

The preservation of the seed quality is a major problem under tropical climatic conditions, in particular for the preservation of the germination capacity. A high level of germination capacity is essential to achieve a good field emergence of seedlings after sowing and the establishment of the required number of plants per area. The legal minimum requirement for certified cereal seed is usually, a germination capacity of 85%. In order to assure the seed supply in years with unfavourable conditions during vegetation, at harvest or post-harvest this minimum norm was fixed at a rather low level. In modern competitive seed markets, the germination capacity of the seed lots offered by the seed companies and retailers is usually exceeding 95%.

The seed production and quality control system introduced to countries having tropical zones usually are similar to systems established in countries with predominantly moderate climates. Usually they include a mechanised seed cleaning in large seed conditioning plants. Such systems require medium to long distance transports of seed from the producers of the seed crops (multipliers) to the processing plant and later from the processing plant to the distribution points and seed users’ sites. In addition classic seed certification schemes require certain periods for seed sampling, transfer of samples to the seed labs, seed testing, analysis, reporting et cetera. 

In tropical zones we often have two rainy seasons suitable for cop production and between these seasons a dryer period of about 2 month. For the seed system described above the time of 2 month is too short to prepare, test and distribute the seed and therefore, the seed is stored during one entire season, a total period of approximately 8 month, to be used for the second next season. 

Experience and scientific experiments show the problem related to a seed storage at high temperatures (> 30°C) and high humidity of the air. Under these conditions, storage periods of over 3 month usually result in a substantial loss of seed vigour and germination capacity. Consequently, the number of seedlings emerging after sowing decreases and the number of plants is insufficient for a good crop yield. The data from laboratory testing of grain and seed of maize established in the frame of CTB/ENABEL programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo illustrate the problem of rapid loss of germination capacity under tropical conditions.

Table: Germination capacity of maize after storage periods


Seed testing may detect the decline in seed quality but it will not stop the rapid physiological seed deterioration under tropical climate. Until the sowing period the seed quality of all lots is reduced, as can be seen from their decreased germination capacity. Frequently we found in projects in the DRC that the germination capacity was below the minimum norm (of 80%) Even the seed lots that maintained a germination capacity above the minimum norm (of 85%) have a reduced vigour and their field emergence is inferior to the one of fresh seed. Using such stored seed will not allow to reduce the seed rate of certified seed compared to non-certified fresh seed and thus an important advantage certified seed should possess is missing. 

In order to reduce the speed of seed deterioration and to solve the problem of loss of seed quality many agronomists propose improving the storage conditions. Options for improvement of storage conditions are refrigeration or a combination of drying and conservation in vapour proof containers. Both options are expensive. Cold storage requires isolated cold rooms, refrigeration units and a regular supply of electricity. Artificial drying and storage in vapour proof bags is expensive too. There is a risk of damage during handling of the bags. The required material for seed bags, strong plastic or plastic with vapour proof aluminium lining, implies a problem of waste disposal in particular in areas without waste collecting and processing facilities. 

At the seed users’ level, certified seed competes with local seed and if an advantage of seed quality of the certified seed is not guaranteed (see reduced germination capacity of stored certified seed) it does not present an economic advantage compared to non-certified seed. The storage period itself means an economic disadvantage. Since the retailers have to wait for an entire season (additional time of about 6 month) until selling, they lack financial liquidity. The alternative costs are equal to the costs of a 6-month loan. Where interest rates are high and financial resources are low, the long storage period is economic nonsense. Either of the problems, the economic and the quality loss, constitute a strong reason to change or replace the presently promoted seed production and supply system. 
The severe economic and technical problems related to the centralised seed production and certification system can be avoided through a de-centralised system of seed supply and quality control. The main elements of such a system are farmers multiplying seed in the area of the seed users. These farmers or farmers groups should do the seed multiplication, seed processing, short-term storage and should trade the seed from their farm, on local markets or through local dealers or seed shops. 

The decentralisation of the seed production and supply may require a reorganization of the seed certification system or may require another system of quality control. If the competent authorities are not able to provide comprehensive field inspection and seed testing to a large number of seed producers operating far from the offices of the competent authority, there are alternative options for the control or supervision of seed production and supply. The FAO has proposed a simplified system of quality control and supervision. The seed produced under this model is known as Quality Declared Seed (QDS). 

As seed experts know the main motivation of farmers to buy or otherwise acquire new seed is to have access to better varieties, varieties that present advantages compared to their own varieties in terms of yield, quality or consumer demand. Therefore a seed supply system adapted to tropical climate must include the creation, testing and introduction of new varieties from public research and/or the improvement of local varieties or populations. In the frame of the CTB/ENABEL projects in the DRC multi-locational field trials were introduced in order to identify the best locally adapted pure–line varieties or populations that should be chosen for seed multiplication and seed supply. The major innovation was the introduction of a simplified field trial scheme that allows farmers to run (within a network of farmers and research stations) their own trials and to test their own genetic material in comparison to registered varieties and new varieties proposed by public research.
Regardless of climatic or other environmental conditions successful seed supply systems are always based on the economic operations of entrepreneurs. There are no sustainable seed supply systems that are not mainly based on the operations of private seed producers, processors and traders, that are able to meet the needs of food producing farmers and consumers alike. The identification and support of interested private partners (individuals or groups) that, if possible, are already involved in local seed supply should be a priority of any seed project. Any governmental or local public authority should accept the essential role of private entrepreneurs for a sustainable seed system. According to the experience gained through the CTB/ENABEL projects in DRC in three provinces, there are local farmers or farmer groups that are motivated and able to act as entrepreneurs in the seed business, as seed multipliers, seed processors, local seed traders, operators of field trials and eventually as local breeders

Assessment of the Cost-effectiveness of Innovations 

Picture: Field trial to obtain data for the assessments of plant varieties and certified seed,  Masi Manimba, Democratic Republic of the Congo 


This article describes how to easily check and assess the cost-effectiveness of innovative inputs or production systems. In a case study on smallholder farmers using certified maize seed, the profitable use of this innovation is analysed. This case study uses data from the Kwilu and Kwango regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The basic question was whether certified seed is a true benefit for smallholders under their specific economic and farming conditions. 

The assessment is a rather simple cost-benefit comparison. Compared to other models of economic analysis, this assessment requires relatively little data. The assessment is at the level of the individual seed user, because his personal benefit will carry him to to adopt an innovation. 

This economic assessment revealed a particular problem of development projects: the calculations showed a very strong dependence of the profitability on the initial level of productivity. If the starting level of productivity is low, an innovation needs to have a higher level (percentage) of efficiency. At medium or high levels of productivity, the efficiency may be smaller and still the innovation may be profitable. 

For the case of seed, the starting level of productivity is the average yield given so far. The average yield of maize is very low in the regions of Kwilu and Kwango. Marginal production conditions, with low yields, are typical for operation areas of development projects. Only profitable innovations will allow needy farmers to improve their nutrition and overall economic situation. Only profitable innovations will be sustainable. 

The presented findings are not specific to the seed sector. In other economic fields, too there is a specific relation between the level of productivity and the economics of innovations. The presented model of assessment can be used in other sectors of the economy.

 Innovations must be cost-effective to be sustainable  

For most development projects, an essential objective is the improvement of the economic situation of people in need. However, if development is to improve economic performance and thus material prosperity, it must also be economically viable and sustainable. Under no circumstances should innovations create a permanent dependence on external funds or donors.

The cost-effectiveness of the proposed innovations should be an important criterion for the success of development projects. But what about reality? Projects often fail because they do not lead to economically sustainable production systems.

In the seed sector of many developing countries, the level of development achieved by seed projects could not be maintained for long. European-style certification systems usually cease to function shortly after the end of project financing. Even where these systems have been supported by projects repeatedly, certified seed as an input for smallholders is usually of little importance. 

Economic assessments are often made to estimate the economic benefits of projects. These assessments are usually done at the level of a larger target group or on a national scale. In general up-to-date local data or not available and instead data or "experience values" are used, which come from countries where the innovations are already widespread. This can lead to false conclusions. 

 The profitability of seed used by smallholders 

The assessment presented here was carried out within the framework of Belgian-Congolese projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The economic viability of the use of certified maize seed has been tested. Data from the Kwilu and Kwango regions were used for the calculations. The data were collected as part of an evaluation mission of the CTB (Cooperation Technique Belge, since 2018 ENABEL). 

Initially, the data available were only the sowing quantities, seed prices, the selling price of the harvested grain and the average yield of maize in the project regions. The key figures for assessing the profitability are calculated in three steps.

Step A first calculates the additional costs of using certified seed. The costs for both seed types are the product of the respective seed quantity and the respective seed price. For certified seed, the sowing quantity of 25 kg/ha is chosen, according to a recommendation of the agricultural extension service. A slightly higher quantity of 30 kg/ha is used for the local seed, based on the assumption that local seed might have a lower germination capacity.

In the context of development projects certified seed is often provided without charge. For the assessment a  sales price of USD 1.50/kg was adopted, this price was recommended by a panel representing seed producers and local authorities. According to estimations of the CTB projects, the real cost of producing and providing certified maize seed was well above this recommended price. For the local seed, a price of 0.33 USD/kg was chosen. This was the current price of maize grains on the local market. This price is also set if the local seed is from farmers' own harvest.

The seed prices per hectare are as follows: 

1) Certified seed: 25 kg x 1.50 USD/kg = 37.50 USD 

2) Local seed: 30 kg x 0.33 USD/kg = 9.90 USD 

The additional costs of certified seed result from the difference (37.50 USD – 9.90 USD = 27.60 USD). Therefore, per hectare, certified seed costs USD 27.60 more than local seed. 


Step B calculates the additional yield per ha that certified seed must produce in order to cover its additional cost. The additional cost of the certified seed is 27.60 USD/ha. The required additional yield per ha must therefore have a monetary value greater than 27.60 USD, otherwise the use of certified seed makes no sense for the seed user. 

At a selling price of 0.33 USD per kg, it is necessary to sell 83.64 kg of maize (27.60 USD : 0.33 USD/kg = 83.64 kg) in order to cover the additional costs of the certified seed (of 27.60 USD). For the farmer, this means that the use of certified seed only makes sense if he increases the yield of maize by more than 83.64 kg per ha. 

If the actual increase of yield due to the use of certified seed is known, if current and site-specific data are available, then it is possible to decide whether the purchase of certified seed is profitable or not. If the real additional yield has a monetary worth exceeding the additional cost of certified seed, then the purchase and use of this seed does make sense for the farmer.

At the time of the first analysis by the CTB projects, however there were no verified data on the yield to be achieved with certified maize seed. In order to make a preliminary estimate of the economics of certified seed, it was calculated which impact (as percent of the yield of local seed) would be required to cover the extra cost of certified seed.

This calculation is presented in step C. According to official harvest estimates, the average maize yields in the Kwilu and Kwango regions were about 800 kg per ha. In order to determine the necessary percentage yield increase, the quotient of the average yield level of 800 kg/ha and the necessary additional yield of 83.64 kg/ha is calculated. This quotient is converted into a percent value.

At a yield level of 800 kg (Step C, yield level 2), the certified seed must raise the yield by at least 10% in order to provide an economic benefit for the user. 


All maize varieties recommended in Kwilu and Kwango were open-pollinated varieties. Unlike for hybrid varieties, a very strong reduction of yield due to inbreeding must not be expected. Some of the recommended varieties were over 20 years old. These varieties have long been used as farm saved seed and could be considered to be local seed. It is unlikely that certified seed of those old varieties will produce a higher yield than the farm saved “local” seed descending from the same varieties. Both seed types should have a similar genetic composition. In addition, the certified seed generally had no higher germination capacity than the local seed, as was verified through germination tests. Therefore, no yield increase could be expected from a better field emergence and higher plant densities.

Under these circumstances, it was not likely the certified seed improved the yield by 10%. However, if the yield increase is less than 10%, the use of certified seed does not constitute an economic advantage to farmers in the Kwilu and Kwango regions. Laboratory and field trials between 2014 and 2017 confirmed this presumption. In these trials, the certified seed of different maize varieties in general did not achieve better yields than “local” seed.

The table of step C also provides estimates for regions or production systems with a higher or lower average yield level. For all yield levels, it was assumed that seed quantities used and the prices of seed remained unchanged.

In a region (or with an improved production system) with an average yield of 2000 kg/ha (yield level 4), an additional yield of just over 4% is sufficient to make the use of certified seed profitable. With a yield of 8000 kg per ha, which corresponds to a good yield of a fertile field in Europe, the certified seed would have to yield only 1% more to cover its cost. The stunning conclusion is, that at a higher starting level of yield, the use of certified seed is profitable, even when the relative yield increase (as percentage of local seed) is rather small.

On the other hand, for smallholder farmers working under very unfavourable conditions, which, for example, only reach half the average yield of the Kwilu and Kwango regions (yield level 1 = 400 kg/ha), the certified seed would have to improve the yield by more than 20% to cover its cost. 

The profitability of innovations depends on the current level of productivity 

The model calculations show that at low and very low yield levels the certified seed needs possess a high level of efficiency in order to be profitable. The relative percentage increase in yield must be considerably higher at low starting levels of yield than at a medium or high levels of yield. This may help to understand why it is so difficult to achieve an economic advantage through innovations, if they are used under marginal production conditions or in places with a marginal level of productivity.

This fact is not specific to the Kwilu and Kwango regions or to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is not particular for seed, it applies for other agricultural inputs (fertilizers, machinery, plant protection products) as well. It applies for new production processes or organizational structures too. This link between innovation costs, productivity levels, effectiveness and profitability also applies in different economic fields.

It is often assumed, that modern inputs or technologies have a high degree of efficiency. However this assumption may be misleading. For example, a series of field trials in the Democratic Republic of Congo showed that the use of certified seed did not lead to significant yield improvements. In another case the use of a tractor accelerated the ploughing, but the grain yield was not raised. Field trials in Kwilu and Kwango regions showed that synthetic fertilizer had a very limited effect on the yield. Agricultural research reports of a strong fixation of nutrients by certain degraded soils types that are frequently found in tropical African regions.

This is not to say that in general modern inputs are not suitable for the Democratic Republic of Congo or comparable countries. However, in each specific case, it must be examined whether the proposed innovations solve economically significant problems. To achieve this, innovations must be adapted to local conditions and needs and achieve a sufficiently high level of efficiency when applied by the target group.

The calculations presented assume the same prices and costs, both at low yield levels and at high yield levels. Costs and prices can of course vary depending on the region and production system. For the Democratic Republic of Congo, however, it can be assumed that innovations such as certified seed, fertilizer or tractors are more expensive than in emerging or industrialized countries. In general this is due to high deployment costs in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A specific challenge for development projects 

The cost-effectiveness of an innovation, that exists in a particular region or in a particular production system, must not simply be assumed for other regions or production systems. Every innovation should be examined - before its recommendation and general introduction - under the conditions of the target region and the target group!

Development aid in particular is trying to improve the marginal production systems of smallholders. For development projects, therefore, the relation between the profitability of an innovation and the current level of productivity must be of particular interest.

Of course, development projects are to improve the situation of those in need as quickly as possible. Therefore, projects try to introduce innovations without delay and try to reach a large number of beneficiaries. Frequently broad-based training and advisory campaigns are carried out in early stages of projects. According to my experience however, the promoted innovations are very often not sufficiently tested on the ground and adapted to the local requirements. Usually, no analysis of the cost-effectiveness on the level of the individual user is carried out before projects make recommendations and train beneficiaries.

The sustainability of subsidised innovations 

Because the needy members of target groups are often unable to finance innovations themselves, projects tend to provide innovations for free or at a reduced price. However, innovations that are not profitable without subsidies run into problems when the financial support expires. After the end of agricultural projects, it is often found that subsidised inputs are no longer purchased and used by smallholders. Repeatedly experts accuse them to reject modern inputs because of ignorance or resistance to change. The real cause of the rejection, however, may often be the lack of cost-efficiency. 

In order to promote the introduction and use of innovations, while the beneficiaries are unable to afford them, sometimes projects suggest to finance the purchase through loans. However, this can be dangerous. If the promoted innovations are not profitable, the consequence is a constant debt. Credit-financed innovations that are not profitable can threaten the economic existence and even life of people!

The need to test innovations under the local conditions

For the success and sustainability of development projects, the assessment of the cost-effectiveness of innovations is particularly important. Innovations must be tested for their effectiveness and economics. These tests must be done under the economic and life conditions of the target group. A broad based recommendation and introduction of an innovation should only be made when both the technical and the economic assessment are positive.

Progress in agricultural production does not usually allow for very large improvements in yields in a short period of time. For example, the possible annual yield increases from new varieties are usually in the single-digit percentage range. However, continuous plant breeding can nevertheless lead to large increases in yields over the course of the years.

In plant production, during the normal cultivation in the field, it is usually not possible to prove small differences of yield. In order to decide whether the effects of innovations, such as new varieties or certified seeds, are statistically significant it is necessary to test them in precise plot trials. The final judgement of the cost–efficiency of an innovation should be based on reliable data of its impact.


From the concrete example, insights can be drawn which are generally important for development projects: 

Development projects are often carried out where productivity is low, especially in regions where, for example, crop yields in agriculture are low. Low yields are also often typical for the production systems of the target groups of projects. 

An analysis of the cost-effectiveness of innovations is therefore particularly important for development projects. The recommendation and introduction of innovations should only be made on a large scale once it has been demonstrated that the innovations are profitable under the specific living conditions of the target groups.

Recommending and promoting innovations simply because they function in modern production systems, in developed or emerging countries is dangerous. The introduction of those innovations in other countries can cause economic disadvantages and ultimately destroy the confidence of needy people in the competence of researchers, consultants and politicians.

In order to demonstrate the economics of an innovation in a given environment, reliable empirical data on its effectiveness are required. Such data are best obtained by testing the innovation directly at and with the respective target group. In the frame of such tests, innovations may also be adapted to local requirements.

Development projects are mainly about people in need. It is about people who are suffering from shortages and whose economic and physical existence is often threatened. Such people should not be carried to use innovations whose benefits have not been verified. It is very important that this benefit is demonstrated on the ground, under their living conditions. 

In the past development projects have too often pushed innovations that had no real benefit for those in need. Numerous ruins of development projects, technologies, production facilities and organisational structures that do not work without permanent subsidies, that never became sustainable, prove this. 

Also, or above all, in development cooperation, the maxim should be that projects are not only well-intentioned, but that they are well done. Based on experience in the seed sector, this article aims to provide an approach to improving the benefits and sustainability of projects. 

 Only the Market knows the Seed Needs

(why seed projects must operate in the market) 


Picture: Roadside stall in Malawi 

Most African countries prefer seed certification schemes to provide quality seed for agriculture. All seed projects I have encountered over nearly 30 years in Africa have sought to promote the production and control of certified seed. However, the frequency of certified seed use is still very low in most African countries. Statistics and estimates suggest that less than 10% of the seed used to produce staple foods is certified seed.

The production and quality control of certified seed is expensive. With the end of seed projects, the production and use of certified seed usually declines sharply. In free competition, certified seed does not prevail. Thus, the production and control systems set up mainly by development projects are not sustainable.

This article aims to show why seed projects should not distribute their certified seed or other "improved seed" bypassing local markets. It tries to describe why local seed trade is very important for small farmers with low purchasing power. It wants to show why only seed systems that develop in a free market can become economically sustainable. Finally, it gives some concrete recommendations to seed projects in order to promote seed systems that operate economically self-sufficient and successful in the market and thus become sustainable.

Why the seed market is very important for small farmers

Farmers have very diverse seed needs. They usually have different crops that they grow at different periods. For each type of crop, there are numerous requirements concerning agronomic characteristics and the product properties. So the corresponding demand for varieties and seeds is very diverse and can only be satisfied if there is a diverse offer.

Many experts assume that resource-poor smallholder farmers do not buy seed but almost exclusively use their own seed. They conclude that smallholders cannot afford quality seed and such seed must therefore be distributed free of charge.

However, if you ask smallholders, you will discover that even if they live in remote areas of African countries, they do buy seed. Farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo often bought seed from local markets or from neighbours, and for some crop species purchases were even more frequent than using the own seed. In local markets, the price of seed is significantly lower than the price of certified seed. It is mostly at the price level of grain.

In local markets, seed is close to the farmers and available in time before sowing. Farmers may purchase seed in very small quantities. Seed coming from projects often does not possess these advantages that can be very significant.

Why projects should not produce and distribute seed themselves 

Seed projects often take care of all the financing: from production, to quality control, to distribution. Even if local farmers, research institutions, and agricultural administrations carry out the production and distribution, it takes place in a highly subsidized and non-market environment. Decisions on the selection of crop species, varieties, and seed categories, are made primarily or even exclusively by researchers or other experts.

Projects thus create seed systems that do not produce at competitive costs and that do not connect to the free seed market. In addition to the costs of multiplication, there are often high costs for central seed processing, quality control and transport. Distribution requires a large logistical effort. Not infrequently needy farmers do not receive the seed in time.

If projects distribute larger quantities of seed, this may also mean unfair competition to local unsubsidized producers and traders.

 Only the market knows farmers' real seed needs

The most important role of the market is to match seed supply to demand, very quickly and at low cost. In doing so, the market is also able to identify very different and local needs. In my opinion, only purchases provide a good image of  the real needs of farmers.

The accuracy of the description of seed needs by experts is always inferior to the specification of the demand through the market. Even with a lot of effort, it is difficult to capture all the criteria that are important to farmers when choosing seed. Not to mention that many experts still think they know better than the farmers themselves what kind of seed the farmers would need.

In addition to the more or less objective criteria, there are also subjective reasons for farmers´ choice and purchase decision. The market serves both the objective and subjective preferences.

Via the demand, the market quickly and precisely controls production and supply in order to meet the needs. This control works efficiently, even if there are very many different buyers and if the suppliers are many local producers and traders. 

When seeds are distributed free of charge, it can be seen time and again that significant quantities are not used for sowing at all. This is a common problem of expert-based or planned economy distribution systems.

For both inputs and consumer goods, planned economy production and distribution systems have not been very successful in the past. Among countries that call themselves socialist or communist today; the economically most successful are those that accept markets and their important steering function.

Although seed is often considered a systemically important and thus politically significant resource, its production and distribution should take place within the framework of a free market. The market is far more efficient than a supply system driven by experts or politicians.

 Only seed systems able to operate in the market are sustainable 

Local markets for food and seed have existed for a long time. Even in times of crisis, decentralized production and trade usually still function relatively well. Only if both the quality of the seed and its price are acceptable to farmers seed supply systems are economically sustainable.

Only in seed systems that can survive in a free market, the quality and price of seed can be expected to adjust to the demand and purchasing power of smallholder farmers. As a result, free seed markets function over the longer term and are sustainable.

Because project-financed certification systems that bypass the market did not become economically sustainable, certified seed has only a minor role in the regular supply of smallholder farmers. Even where such systems were established and renewed several times, they generally do not achieve a high share in seed supply. In many African countries, it must be assumed that generally less than 10% of the seed used for food production is certified seed. Smallholder farmers are even less likely to use certified seed. 

How can seed projects operate in the market? 

In all the African countries I was privileged to work in, there were "modern" seed systems that were essentially set up through development projects. These seed systems were based on European-style seed certification schemes. Traditional or local seed markets were neither the basis nor part of these systems. None of these seed systems operated essentially in a demand-driven market.

In theory, certified seed is generally of higher quality than local or traditional seed, and this quality is assured by the certification authority. In practice, certification systems only work if new and improved varieties are regularly introduced to the market. This particularly applies for: Plant species not suffering from severe yield losses due to seed-borne diseases, so called “true seed” and non-hybrid seed. Access to new varieties is usually the most important motivation for buying certified seed.

In many African countries, there is no local or national, private plant breeding and no regular, annual release of new varieties. Under these conditions, there is no particular incentive for smallholders to buy certified seed. Seed projects that want to promote the purchase and use of quality seed must therefore first ensure that new varieties are regularly bred and released. They must also ensure that these varieties achieve better performance under the production conditions of their target group, i.e. smallholders.

For this purpose, the projects should promote not only public but also private plant breeding in the project region. They should establish a field trial system that allows farmers to test varieties. Certified seed or other "improved seed" should only be recommended if the projects are able to prove that the varietal performance and the physiological-technical quality of the seed cause an economic benefit for smallholders.

An economic benefit is only achieved, if the seed quality causes an increase in performance (yield or product quality) and if the additional cost of the seed is less than the economic benefit generated by the seed (see article: Assessment of the Cost-effectiveness of Innovations). Only if the financial benefit is proven for smallholders should projects or agricultural extension recommend this quality seed .


In order to achieve an economic benefit and make quality seed marketable, it is very important that the production, the quality control and the distribution are not too expensive. Seed projects should therefore very critically examine, which production system, which type of quality control, and which producers and distributors are most likely to provide seed that is cost-effective and marketable. Seed projects should consider which actors and elements of traditional production systems they should engage and support, and which technological improvements could be adapted to those systems.

Mandatory, government seed certification is the quality control system preferred in all or almost all African countries. Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive system and it also depends on the permanent functioning of state administrations. In order to offer farmers not only the expensive certified seed, suggestions were made to allow seed categories that are less expensive. With that objective the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations developed and proposed the concept of "Quality Declared Seed", QDS is a seed category that requires less governmental control and may be produced at lower cost.

Unfortunately, most African agricultural administrations ignore or rejected this concept, probably because they fear that it may reduce their influence on the seed sector and their importance. Specific seed categories regulated by European seed laws in order to supply enough seed in case of emergencies or shortages are usually not part of the seed laws of African countries. Sometimes those categories are provided by the legislation, but the government are reluctant to allow their production and trade. Considering the relatively low share of certified seed for the general seed supply in many countries, it is very unfortunate that alternative seed categories that would cost less are almost universally rejected. 

Seed projects should stand up for seed categories that legalize and facilitate the local production and trade of seed. Seed projects should advise the national and local authorities how to use their control capacities in order to monitor the quality of seed in rural areas. Random sampling of seed lots on local markets and their testing would be cheaper than mandatory certification of all seed lots and may provide better information on the actual quality of seed that is used by the smallholder farmers.

In all countries with successful seed supply systems, the responsibility for seed the quality is with the seed producers and traders! Private producers and traders, unlike projects or governments can be held liable for their products. The providers’ liability extends until the delivery to the customers or even until sowing. This is a significant advantage over a certification scheme, where the seed testing agency determines the seed quality at some time but has limited or no influence on the seed storage or handling after testing. 

Seed projects should provide targeted support to private seed producers and traders. This relates primarily to training and advice. The financing or supply of seed processing facilities should only be done in exceptional cases. The central facilities established by seed projects over the past decades are often out of operation or they work at a very limited capacity.

The most important support that seed projects need to provide is to help create a legal basis for de-centralised activities. This may require adapting or supplementing the national seed legislation in order to provide for appropriate seed categories or to adapt legal requirements to the needs and capabilities of local seed producers and traders.