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Understanding seed policies in SSA

To better understand variety release procedures for improved maize seed in sub-Saharan Africa, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and CIMMYT conducted a study of 13 countries during 2007-08. Findings from this study, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, were recently published in a report titled Variety Testing and Release Approaches in DTMA Project Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the report’s major findings is that efficient and timely variety release is hindered by variable, inconsistent, and misunderstood seed laws and procedures. Such constraints deny farmers access to and benefits from improved germplasm and damage SSA seed marketing.

Of the 13 countries surveyed, only 7 have published guidelines on how testing for distinctness, uniformity, and stability (DUS) should be conducted, and what traits are to be recorded. Such tests are important because they ensure that the varieties being released are unique and differ from all known varieties in at least one characteristic. It was also found that among polled countries expenses for DUS testing ranged from no cost at all to US $600.

The two organizations that are responsible for deciding if maize varieties are suitable for release are the National Seed Authority (NSA) and the National Variety Release Committee (NVRC). The study shows that NVRCs vary widely among SSA countries; some are dominated by the private sector while others are controlled mainly by the public sector, and the frequency of NVRC meetings differ by country. Additionally, the number of new varieties annually released varies, with South Africa releasing more than 60 while other countries may fail to release any.

This convoluted system is costly and duplicative, as the same variety must be tested in all countries where it is being targeted for marketing. This results in a low number of variety releases and delays profits expected by seed companies while they wait for their new varieties to be registered from one country to the next.

The report contains several recommendations on how to improve the rate of varietal release, and thus have more seed of improved varieties available in the market. They include regional harmonization of seed laws; promoting the use of data from other countries; simplification of variety testing; and regular NVRC meetings.