International business: Directive facilitating seed export from Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s continuing seed sector transformation is creating new opportunities. A new Directive lays a path for seed exports to flourish. Joep van den Broek maps the origins of this important milestone.

Foreign investments in seed production in Ethiopia: The potential
International vegetable seed companies are continuously looking for new production locations in order to optimize production planning and spread risk. Over the past years a number of international seed companies have arrived in Ethiopia to start up vegetable seed production. Ethiopia has excellent conditions for seed production, given the availability of good quality water, conducive day and night temperatures, high light intensity and low humidity. In addition, Ethiopia has good flight connections and is relatively close to the EU.

For Ethiopia the sector offers good opportunities for job employment as hybrid seed production is a very labour intensive activity. On average a hectare of seed production requires between 20 and 60 laborers per hectare. Given the high unemployment in Ethiopia, this creates opportunities for women and youth in rural areas, both for casual laborers and university graduates. In addition, the sector is very knowledge intensive and can create knowledge spillover to other seed-related companies. Importantly, export of seeds generates much needed foreign exchange to improve Ethiopia’s trade balance.

Regulatory challenges: The path of the unknown
At the same time, this emerging sector encountered tension with the existing seed regulatory framework. For most of Ethiopia’s seed laws and regulations the context had been domestic seed production for the domestic market, or seed imports. In the case of export seed production no specific provisions had been taken up and as such the general rules applied.

For the first trial export shipments, planned for October 2017, one company immediately faced problems with the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute. The Institute, responsible for the conservation and use of plant genetic materials, published a Circular for all airport staff indicating that seed exports should comply with Proclamation 482/2006 on Access to Genetic Resources. The trial shipment immediately got blocked and a lengthy discussion commenced involving the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), the Ethiopian Horticulture and Agriculture Investment Authority (EHAIA), the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority (ERCA) and the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI).

The debate centered around the question whether the scope of Proclamation 482/2006 includes genetic material that is owned and produced by a private company or if that should be merely governed by the Ministry of Agriculture. ISSD Ethiopia supported a number of the meetings with MoA, EBI and EHAIA, in particular by providing best practices from other countries and legal interpretation of the Genetic Resources Proclamation. By the end of February 2018 the matter was resolved and the trial seeds could leave the country.

Seed production and variety release: Same activity, different rules?
Even earlier, another issue presented itself; that of variety registration. Ethiopia’s Proclamation on Seed (782/2013) is clear in its stipulations that any variety that is “intended for domestic or export market shall be released by the Ministry before it is produced locally” (article 4.1). This implies that all varieties produced in Ethiopia need to go through at least one season of multilocational trials before registration.

In the case of international vegetable seed companies, the intention is to import the parental lines, produce the F1 on Ethiopian soil, and re-export 100% of the resulting seed abroad for further processing and global marketing. Typically companies produce dozens of varieties at their production locations and variety registration is neither feasible nor logical, as varieties often are not well-adapted to the local conditions and may vary from year to year. The sole intention is to produce good quality seed for exports.

Navigating uncertainty and brokering solutions
Initially, the Ministry of Agriculture acted quickly on this issue and granted the two companies that already started seed production an exception; parent lines were allowed in and the progeny, the F1 seed, could leave the country. However, new companies that commenced activities after 2016 were put on hold and told that a new Directive should pass first before exports could start.

ISSD Ethiopia facilitated a number of meetings to come to an agreement on the conditions for allowing export seed production companies to produce unregistered varieties. And as a result, a first draft Directive was discussed in the second part of 2016. The two most contentious issues were: the measures needed to ensure that the seed would not leave the premises of the seed companies (and illegally sold in the domestic market) and whether multiplication on smallholder plots could be accepted.

At the end of 2016 these issues were resolved and a final draft directive was submitted for approval to the then Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Tefera Deribew. Shortly after a Cabinet shuffle took place and a new Minister Dr Eyasu Elias was appointed. During the successive years of 2017 and 2018 serious political and social unrest took place in Ethiopia, and the Directive became less of a priority for the Ministry. It was only until mid-2019, during a visit to the Netherlands by the current Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Umer Hussein, that the Directive was put back on the agenda. Soon after the Directive was discussed again and passed in December 2019.

Alongside the Directive, an improved Proclamation on Plant Breeders Rights passed in 2018, giving Ethiopia the right framework for more investments in export seed production. The Proclamation complements an adequate phytosanitary service that can provide the required inspections and phyto certificates.

In the end it always works
The entire process to adjust Ethiopia’s seed regulations to the specific requirements of a flourishing  export seed sector eventually took more than three years. The resulting Directive for the ‘Importation, Multiplication and Exporting of Unregistered Varieties’ undoubtedly opens up Ethiopia for international vegetable seed companies. Importantly, the Directive allows for seed production on smallholder fields using a contractual agreement and provisions are put in place to strictly monitor seed production at the companies through production plans and record keeping.

All in all, two leading vegetable seed companies have now kickstarted seed production operations in Ethiopia, with both BASF-Nunhems and Limagrain-Hazera investing in greenhouse and open field seed production.

Ben Depraetere, Managing Director of Nunhems Ethiopia, part of BASF Vegetable Seeds:

“Being a pioneer in vegetable seed production in Ethiopia was a bit challenging in the beginning. However, now that a conducive regulatory framework is in place and seed production and exports are up and running, we believe that Ethiopia has a promising future for the entire vegetable seed sector. Investing in Ethiopia requires a little patience but in the end it always works”.

The vision of the Ethiopian government goes even further, with the aim of becoming the Seed Production Hub of Africa. As the international investors can attest, the right seeds have been sown to achieve this.