Seed Systems in Fragile Contexts

February 1, 2020


Photo by Fintrac Inc.

The Feed the Future Enabling Environment for Food Security project (EEFS) recently completed a six-province study of the enabling environment for seed in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). EEFS, Marketlinks, and Agrilinks highlighted key themes, common challenges, and specific strategies for seed market system development for fragile contexts in a recent joint webinar. You can access upcoming post-event resources on the event page here.

Developing a robust seed system that delivers timely, quality seed to farmers is enormously complex. Seed is the most fundamental of building blocks for food security as well as a mechanism for delivery of highly innovative technologies to increase production, disease resistance, and adaptation to climate pressures. Seed policy must enable private seed sector investment while effectively protecting consumer interests and balancing competing public goals of poverty reduction, nutrition, and rural development.

A mature, effective seed regulatory system is multifaceted, resource-intensive, and highly technical. Even in the best scenarios, seed system development requires many years of government investment and a phased development of the legal framework and regulatory capacity in line with the growing sophistication of private seed producers and the agriculture sector.

Fragile contexts, such as areas disrupted by war, disease, or natural disasters, often lack even the most basic foundation on which a modern seed system is built. The pressure to supply certified seed for humanitarian relief programs, when combined with seed regulatory institutions that have neither the infrastructure, equipment, nor technical capacity to carry out quality oversight, creates ample opportunity for fake seed to enter the market. This mix of incentives can create a “wild west” scenario in which development actors can unintentionally undermine private sector investment in high-quality seed production and distribution chains.

In fragile contexts, where certified seed through formal channels is limited, farmers often source a significant amount of seed through informal local market channels. Based on findings from EEFS’ recent Seed Commercial, Legal, and Institutional Reform (SeedCLIR) in DRC, the seed sourced from these channels is often of unknown genetic background and germination capacity, which constrains farmer performance and, and in the cases where grain is sold as agriculture seed, may dampen their willingness to invest in quality seed in future growing cycles.

Given the primacy of seed for agricultural sector resilience and growth, development actors are eager to address seed needs in the wake of conflict. Yet, too little is known about how to tailor those investments in a way consistent with long-term seed market development. For instance:

  • How do you facilitate access to quality seed for farmers in emergency settings in a way that reinforces — rather than disrupts — the private market for seed?
  • What are the initial priorities in establishing a legal and regulatory framework — a national seed policy, a variety catalog, or plant breeders’ rights?
  • Where do you start when the seed inspectors do not even reliably receive salaries, and when laboratory and cold storage equipment has been destroyed?

All too often in fragile contexts, attempts to merge the competing goals of private sector engagement and emergency relief result in a confusing environment that can lead to unintended consequences, including long-term donor dependence, disincentives for private investment, and a pervasiveness of low-quality genetic material available to farmers.

EEFS’ recent SeedCLIR study of eastern DRC examined the enabling environment for seed system development in six provinces across eastern DRC, where conflict and disease have displaced thousands of people, disrupted agricultural markets, and destroyed government and private sector institutions. The study employed the SeedCLIR framework, which is designed to evaluate the level of maturity of the enabling environment for seed and pinpoint investments appropriately tailored to the stage of development of the seed system.

The resulting roadmap provides a long-term strategy for phased, coordinated government and donor engagement on seed issues that takes into account the stark realities of the context in each province. While the findings and recommendations of the report are comprehensive and locally specific, we are able to distill the following key learning themes for supporting seed market system development in fragile contexts.

  1. Not all fragile contexts are the same. Both the northern and southern provinces of eastern DRC face challenges due to a history of conflict, but the report recommends different strategic approaches for the northern provinces, which are still plagued by conflict and heavy involvement of humanitarian relief efforts, than for the southern provinces, where a nascent commercial agricultural system is emerging. Distinguishing geographic variances in risk, local institutional capacity, and existing commercial activity is an important first step in designing appropriate interventions.
  2. A formal regulatory system is the foundation for private investment, but it must be developed in stages. While the various aspects of a seed regulatory system are interdependent and must be viewed holistically, not everything can be achieved at once. Indeed, putting in place a regulatory system that is beyond the capacity and willingness of regulators to implement creates negative incentives and risks undermining the quality of commercially marketed seed. The report discusses strategies to “right size” the regulatory framework as well as how to make use of regional seed institutions where appropriate.
  3. Balancing national policy and local authority. While aligning national policy with international best practice and commitments under regional seed agreements is important, it is unlikely to have any significant impact in conflict-affected areas in the short term. What does matter is a clear mandate, as well as financial and political independence, for the national seed authority (NSA). Both the private sector and regulators can better operate at the local level, where individuals are well aware of the realities on the ground, able to act more nimbly, and have a greater level of trust from the community. A strong, independent NSA can distribute resources and tailor institutional capacity strengthening to the appropriate priorities in each region.

The full text of the DRC SeedCLIR report, including a phased roadmap for enabling environment reform, can be found here.


Feed the Future Enabling Environment for Food Security, “SeedCLIR: Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Agrilinks, September 2019,