Super El Niño tests the resilience of Ethiopian seed systems

Swift collaborative action and capacity strengthening in informal seed systems key to increase security in the face of drought

More than 18 million Ethiopian people, including eight million already receiving cash and food assistance through the Productive Safety Net Programme, required humanitarian assistance in 2016 at a cost of $1.4 billion due to the worst droughts to hit in 50 years, according to Oxfam International. The charity estimates that 11 million in the horn of Africa are still in desperate need of assistance in 2017. Facing what they believe is looming humanitarian catastrophe; the United Nations has issued an appeal for £1.5 billion to assist the region.

“Climate change is not a distant, future threat,” Oxfam said in a briefing. The organization points to mounting evidence that temperatures have been consistently higher in East Africa in recent years, which is part of a trend seen in Africa and around the world today.

Compounding the effects of a lack of rain to fall, warmer temperatures result in higher rates of evapotranspiration, which just make conditions for crops, livestock and those that tend to them even drier and more difficult to survive in.

Assessing Seed System Security
Responding to the urgency of the situation, the Government of Ethiopia and humanitarian partners have swiftly reacted to the crisis, initially distributing 32 000 tons of assorted crop seed during the 2016 Belg and Meher seasons and with additional distributions across 2017.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and partners including ISSD Ethiopia, carried out a Seed System Security Assessment (SSSA) in Ethiopia in 2016. In total, 1,756 farming households, the largest national sample of any SSSA done to date, were interviewed.

The SSSA reviewed the functioning of the seed systems farmers use, both formal and informal, and assessed whether farmers could access seed of adequate quantity and quality in the short and medium term. Specifically, the work reviewed the actual quantities of seed used as reported by farmers themselves for their key crops in the 2016 Belg and Meher seasons. But what makes seed systems more resilient to stress?

According to Shawn McGuire and Louise Sperling, altering crop profiles, making use of multiple delivery channels, and innovating (for example, with new barter mechanisms) all become key, as does mobilizing cross-scale seed supply linkages.

Together, Shawn McGuire, seed security officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and Louise Sperling, seed system security expert, have shed a lot of light on what we continue to learn about seed security and how best to respond in times of crises to the seed demands of farmers. The website ‘’, which the two curate, shares an interesting video on the subject, along with many more useful resources for practitioners and government.

Practitioners in the ISSD community also have evidence to share. Evidence from ISSD Uganda shows that 75% of the varieties with climate resilient features are home saved or locally bought, including those of sorghum and finger millet.

At the best of times, farmers save a portion of their harvests for sowing the seed of future crops. But, during times of stress, data from ISSD Uganda clearly shows a shift towards farmers’ sourcing from their neighbours and from local markets. It doesn’t, however, show an increase in the quantity of seed sourced from formal agrodealer outlets, displaying the limited importance of this source at present in times of seed insecurity.

Continued importance of informal seed systems
We conclude that despite their limitations, informal seed systems remain an important source of seed for farmers especially in times of stress.

Farmers continue to source the lion’s share of their seed from their own fields, those of their relatives and neighbours, or from local markets where grain is typically sold. And, as pointed out in Uganda, it is very often these informal seed systems that conserve and maintain the diversity needed in order to respond to changing climatic conditions.

As outlined in another article of this newsletter issue, ISSD Ethiopia is expanding its activities to improve men and women farmers’ access to quality seed of the varieties they prefer and which are important to food and nutrition
security through strengthening capacities in informal seed systems.

Photo: Tadele Asfaw/CIMMYT