Going with the Grain: Stimulating Private Sector Seed Supply in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Ituri Province
Like farmers in many fragile agricultural economies, smallholders in Ituri do not habitually purchase certified seed. Ituri is located in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with borders with Uganda and South Sudan, and it has been beset with intermittent militia violence for much of the last two decades. Compounded by bare-bones infrastructure and under-resourced government structures, the situation is an inhospitable one for traditional private sector seed suppliers. Instead, farmers save seeds from year to year and often supplement it with low-quality seed from their local marketplace. Their experience with certified seed in professional, sealed packaging is typically limited to large, but irregular, humanitarian seed distribution efforts.
This is a familiar scenario for agricultural development practitioners in fragile and conflict-affected settings the world over. Farmers do not have the ability or willingness to pay for seeds, the logic goes, and there is no real private sector to be found, so donor projects need to step in and fill the gap with vouchers for seeds and funding for seed retail networks. The Feed the Future DRC Strengthening Livelihoods and Resilience (SLR) Activity, which launched in Ituri at the end of 2020, found itself doing just that in some cases. However, SLR also discovered opportunities to “go with the grain” — it found farming communities that were prepared to raise the money to purchase seeds, and the rare business already building distribution networks in Ituri — and start with what was already there.
Beginning with existing distribution systems
One such business is the Nalweyo Seed Company (NASECO), a Ugandan seed company active in Ituri Province since 2018. Its flagship Bazooka maize seed, a hybrid double-cob variety with optimal yields for the middling altitudes in four of Ituri’s five territories, also has some disease resistance and stores particularly well — in general, it is a better option than the local recycled seed, even at comparatively high cost. NASECO came to Ituri in spite of the ongoing conflict because it knows from its work in neighboring countries the importance of reputation and trust. Farmers are a risk-averse bunch, and NASECO believes that peace will come to Ituri and that when it does, they will reap a dividend from loyal farmer customers who remember using Bazooka seeds when nothing else was on the market.
NASECO developed a seed distribution model featuring agents that manage relationships with 10 to 20 affiliated agro-dealers. These agro-dealers range from brick-and-mortar establishments selling a wide inventory of agricultural and veterinary supplies to community members aggregating seed orders with a phone and a motorcycle. The roster of agro-dealers changes from year to year as some drop out and others are recruited. NASECO provides a one-day training each season for these affiliated retailers, and its full-time agents establish small demonstration plots and offer follow-up agronomic support to customers. The company was forced to curtail its network numerically and geographically when active militia violence resumed in 2020.
Build trust and credibility
When SLR and NASECO were designing their partnership, they first built on what was already in place. SLR helped NASECO mobilize new agents and expand their agro-dealer network into less-secure, harder-to-reach parts of Ituri, partially (but temporarily) financing the additional logistics costs involved. They also experimented with ways NASECO could handle marketing events and agronomic follow-up more efficiently. Understanding each other’s objectives and reaching an agreement on a framework for the partnership took most of the second half of 2021 — in the end, SLR provided its contribution to the budget through a fixed-price, pay-for-performance contract akin to the commercial contracts NASECO is used to. During the first two seasons working together in 2022, SLR and NASECO focused on tweaking NASECO’s existing distribution model and getting new agents and geographies on board. During the January-May 2022 season, NASECO reported a twofold increase in Bazooka maize sales, from 15 to 35 metric tonnes, while almost tripling the number of agro-dealers participating in the network. During the subsequent season in August-December, NASECO saw similar sales figures but even higher demand than it could meet, partly due to a production shortfall on the Uganda side of its operation.
More aspirational innovations — like value chain financing of seeds on credit, diversifying into other seed varieties or customer segmentation based on age or gender — had to wait. NASECO and its network were already stretched thin by the demands of working in Ituri, and it would have been premature and artificial to push some of SLR’s ideas this early in the partnership. There was room for learning and adaptation, but it started on the margins. For instance, reflecting on its network performance during the first half of 2022, NASECO observed that most of its agro-dealers did not have basic sales and inventory procedures, so in the August and September training, it introduced a training module on these subjects and then coached and monitored agro-dealers through the rest of the year to assess how they performed.
Introduce smart innovations
The partnership gained momentum at the beginning of this year as NASECO and SLR conceived of a seed credit innovation to build up NASECO’s wholesale channel. Recognizing that the agro-dealers were still developing their business skills and tended to sell in small volumes that would take many more years to reach NASECO’s overall targets for the province, it turned to SLR to help identify communities that could enter into agreements with NASECO to collectively purchase large volumes of Bazooka maize seeds on partial credit, with a down payment at the time of planting and full repayment after the harvest. NASECO always had an ad hoc wholesale line in Ituri — sometimes selling to government, sometimes to humanitarian actors, sometimes to the occasional large-scale farmer — but this was a new approach. Focusing on four communities in Aru and Mahagi territories where SLR was already working on household resilience and social cohesion, NASECO sold 27,750 kilos of seeds to 1,110 smallholder farmers on partial credit in this season’s pilot effort, reaching nearly a full season’s worth of sales in just four transactions. NASECO is making strong progress on its path to commercially sustainable sales volumes, and SLR was able to facilitate access to quality, affordable seeds and free agronomic advice (since farmers will repay their credit with the income from their harvest, NASECO’s agents are giving extra close attention to these four communities!) for over a thousand members of partner communities through a private sector channel.
An (always) uncertain future
The long-term viability of this seed credit approach is still to be seen. The maize harvest is only just beginning, so the team cannot even be certain that the communities will repay the credit. If they succeed this season, a multiplicity of potential challenges awaits in future ones: can NASECO and SLR develop an accurate formula for vetting communities, associations and other groups for credit-worthiness? Once SLR’s staff are no longer defraying the costs of time-consuming negotiations and follow-up with communities, will NASECO still see the seed credit approach as worthwhile? Will a drought, flood or militia raid wipe out one community’s entire crop one season and sour everyone on the whole enterprise?
But a place like Ituri always faces a multiplicity of challenges. In the meantime, SLR succeeded in facilitating a commercial link for farmers to access high-quality seeds they did not have before. Those communities now have a basis to obtain further agronomic guidance, negotiation opportunities and means to adapt as conditions change and new possibilities arise. NASECO is considering diversifying into other seed varieties, starting with fortified beans. SLR has taken preliminary steps with a rice seed producer in Mambasa territory and a potato seed vendor from North Kivu who are interested in building a seed distribution network in parts of Ituri. They, too, could consider agent-based distribution models and seed credit schemes. SLR is better positioned to guide these new entrants to the seed market because it patiently worked for several seasons with what was already there before it began pushing for big innovations — in other words, it went with the grain.
Dan Langfitt was SLR’s director of partnerships and operations from 2020 to April 2023. He currently works in DAI’s resilience and social inclusion practice.