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Seed fairs: an innovative climate-smart practice to obtain stress-tolerant seeds

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Seed fairs bring all value chain actors together to expand access to climate resilient seeds

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A major concern for smallholder farmers at the start of each season is to choose and source seeds, and with the advent of climate change, this is more critical than ever. As part of a CTA-led initiative to help farmers counter drought and other extreme weather events, seed fairs are being organised in Zambia to improve access to quality seed of stress tolerant maize varieties for smallholder farmers.

Until now, farmers have generally used seeds from previous harvest(s) or purchased them from agro-dealers who act as intermediaries between seed producers and farmers. However, most traders lack knowledge of the different crop varieties and best agronomic practices, and are poorly placed to advise farmers on appropriate seeds for their conditions.

Some private seed companies have developed stress tolerant varieties for specific ecological regions, but these are not as well publicised as the commonly used seeds of regular varieties. Farmers are also known to have fallen prey to suppliers of fake and smuggled seeds from neighbouring countries. As climate change tightens its grip, ensuring reliable supplies of quality, specialised seeds resistant to either drought or flooding is of key importance.

“Recognising the economic importance of quality seeds as a key contributor for good harvests, we thought it necessary to organise a forum to bring together in one place the various seed companies, smallholders farmers and the agro-dealers,’’ says Dr Kolawole Odubote, Zambia team leader for CTA’s climate-smart agriculture (CSA) project Scaling-up climate-smart agricultural solutions for cereals and livestock farmers in Southern Africa.

Showcasing climate-smart seed varieties

The seed fairs have been held across the 12 project sites (districts) in Zambia. The aim is to promote the development of a seed market for stress-tolerant varieties by forming partnerships with primary seed suppliers, who can provide information on types of crop varieties and seeds available, their management requirements, level of yields, and associated risks that have to be proactively managed. It is expected that seed fairs will support the creation of demand, but will also directly link production to existing output markets.

Seed fairs are a special type of agricultural show, whereby a temporary market is set up so small-scale farmers can gain access to quality seeds and seed companies can showcase their different varieties. To prevent the seed fairs from being monopolised by a particular seed company or agro-dealer, careful planning goes into the organisation, with all seed companies and agro-dealers given an equal platform.

Publicity is coordinated by a steering committee for each fair, and involves a broadcasting vehicle and an officer from the National Agricultural Information Services (NAIS), a vehicle, cameraman and reporter from the Zambia National Information Services (ZANIS), as well as advertisements and interviews on local radio stations.

In 2017, the project conducted 12 seed fairs, attracting a total of 3,591 participants. The fairs also served as an opportunity for farmers, agro-dealers and seed production companies to interact and share knowledge about the various special stress tolerant maize varieties that exist on the market.

Each seed company was given 10 to 15 minutes to address farmers, before the booths of the various exhibitors were opened to participants. Eight seed companies exhibited at most of the 12 seed fairs, alongside other service providers, such as banks, a solar energy company, telecoms providers, input suppliers, and the Zambia Meteorological Department.

The seed fairs improved farmer awareness about the varieties of seeds available, purchasing contacts and comparative costs of the varieties offered, and will eventually facilitate increased adoption of seeds for stress tolerant maize varieties. This is expected to translate into increased investment by the seed companies, as demand grows.

Outcomes and lessons learned

The seed fairs proved a popular innovation for all those involved, including farmers, extension officers, seed companies and agro-dealers. District authorities have expressed interest in making them an annual event.

Zambia aside, CTA also facilitated seed fairs in Malawi, Mali and Zimbabwe, and the outcomes and impacts have been documented. The following are some of the lessons learned:

  • It is better to organise seed fairs close to villages rather than town centres, because most farmers associate meetings held in town centres with political rallies, and some stayed away for this reason.
  • Seed fairs held in the afternoon recorded better attendance by women than those held in the morning, because it allowed women farmers to take care of their homes before heading to the location.
  • Seed fairs should offer a level-playing field and be open to all seed companies. Sometimes, a particular seed company may try to monopolise the fair by footing the bill on condition that only their seeds should be displayed, blocking the products of other companies.

This article was created through a CTA-led process to document and share actionable knowledge on 'what works' for ACP agriculture. It capitalises on the insights, lessons and experiences of practitioners to inform and guide the implementation of agriculture for development projects.

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