Charting seed sector transformation: From distributed seed to distributed autonomy

With the directive on seed marketing being endorsed earlier this year, we chart here the physical and cognitive journey many had to take to reach this point.

The government has been at the centre of seed distribution since the beginning of formal seed production in the 1970s’. This continued through periods of strong change in the 1990s’ and has been so institutionalised that any recent or young entrant to the sector knows only this centralised seed distribution.

Liberal mindset
As the notion of ‘the developmental state’ took hold since the turn of the century, this distributive mindset was further embedded. But as accountability faded against the growth in production, systemic inefficiencies constrained the sector’s performance; the system could not serve its purpose of getting seed to those that wanted it.

This challenge was compounded through a perception that market liberalisation does not work for Africa, let alone Ethiopia. The late prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, wrote a draft monograph,  “African development: dead ends and new beginnings”, in 2006. The monograph discusses the difficulty of applying neoliberal political economy in Africa where there is market failure, and recommend developmental state as alternative.

This concept is well known among the Ethiopian government structure making it difficult to discuss about a change towards seed marketing. This is the rationale to include ‘direct’ alongside ‘seed marketing’; to highlight that it is not simply liberalisation, but enabling producers to sell their seed directly.

Moving beyond piloting
Despite the challenges, piloting of DSM was started in 2011 in two woredas. Coverage steadily increased each year, and in 2018, 228 woredas were ‘piloting’ DSM. In fact, in 2018, 60% of seed was directly sold to farmers by the producers themselves or their agents.

Regardless of this strong growth and adoption, DSM was considered as a pilot until very recently. There remained an enormous level of resistance to shifting from centralised distribution, both from some key producers and the Government itself. Both had found ways to take advantage in the system when needed.

This resistance to change also meant that the DSM pilot was interpreted and implemented differently across the four regional states (Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR, Tigray). However, multiple drivers ensured a continuous expansion of DSM, including demand from farmers due to growing satisfaction, the reduction in the government’s distribution costs, and the intensive follow-up support activities from partners, notably ISSD and ATA. The culmination was an acceptance of the need to institutionalise DSM as the primary mode of seed delivery to farmers.

Directing autonomy
With such diverse opinions and perceptions on DSM, a useful reference point on which to base engagement would normally be policy. However, neither the 2013 seed law nor the 2016 seed regulation describe explicitly about seed marketing except indicating that seed will be marketed. This unclarity and vague description of marketing was the reason to initiate a process of generating a directive on seed marketing.

The extended two-year process saw in-depth discussions with an array of stakeholders; some open to the changes, some lacking confidence to depart from a well-established system. Finally, in early 2019, the directive was endorsed by the management of the Ministry. This enabled regions to refer to the directive as the justification for changing operations; a clear example of which saw the Bureau of Agriculture in SNNPR withdraw from fixing the seed price in 2019 as the directive clearly states that producers now decide their selling price. The directive is thus important to ensure uniform implementation of seed marketing across the board, and thus institutionalizing seed marketing system in Ethiopia.

The change from seed distribution to direct seed marketing is but one major transformation in the seed sector in Ethiopia in recent years. Read more on this and other innovations on