Since the pre-independence era, African agriculture has focused on a narrow band of commodities that include food crops (cereals and pulses), oil crops (soybean, groundnut, sunflower) and industrial crops (coffee, cocoa, tea, oil palm and rubber tree). Vegetable crops which are inter alia, important for nutrition security, employment and income generation, have comparatively received very little attention. Vegetable production is beset by several constraints. Of paramount importance, is the access to quality seeds of improved and adapted varieties by smallholder farmers. Currently, with the exception of a few commercial large-scale plantations, the majority of vegetable production in SSA is at the subsistence level and most of the land is cultivated by smallholder farmers. For the most part, these farmers rely on own saved seed or seed secured through informal networks. These sources tend to be unreliable in terms of quality, quantity, tolerance/resistance to pests and diseases, and while cheap, take up valuable land due to extremely low productivity. Reliance on importation has its own problems. Some of these problems include the introduction of unadapted varieties, the risk to introduce pests and diseases, and the continuous drain on scarce foreign exchange. In addition, the use of non adapted varieties tends to discredit the formal sector seed in farmers’ eyes. Local seed enterprises will develop only when they can offer farmers a clear advantage over seed saving. Such advantage can take several forms, including convenience, access to superior varieties, and seed quality.
Unlike in eastern and southern Africa, in many central and west African countries, the gloomy situation described above is further compounded by the government policies relating to the regulations of seed production and commercialization which concentrate on field crops and do not take into account the specific technical requirements for vegetable crops, affecting the emergence of a strong and sustainable vegetable seed sector. Moreover, owing to the diversity of vegetable crops in west and central Africa, the seed market is very segmented and thin. Just like a crop requires the proper soil in which to grow, seed enterprises will only thrive in an appropriate environment. The primary characteristic of such environment would be the incentive for farmers to purchase seeds, at least occasionally, rather than using farm-saved stocks. Experience shows that private seed companies are the most effective organizations in dissemination of new seed in many situations. They often have more incentive to work in a sustained, competent manner as their ultimate goal is usually profit oriented and less affected or influenced by national political considerations that often beleaguer the national public systems. Experience also shows that the earliest entry in a nation’s formal seed system is often vegetable seed. Indeed, the seed of many vegetable species is time-consuming to prepare from a farmer’s own crop and in some cases seed production requires cultivating a proportion of plants beyond their fruiting stage. Moreover, in most cases, the vegetable seed is not the edible part of the plant.
There is therefore a need to raise the awareness and build the capacities of countries and regions to take into account the entire vegetable sector in their crop diversification strategies which will contribute to a sustainable rural development, income generation and nutrition.
In collaboration with various major stakeholders, FAO recently assisted sub-regional organizations of West Africa (ECOWAS and UEMOA) in developing a policy framework for the harmonization of seed legislations to facilitate across border seed movement in order to boost regional seed trade. A similar arrangement is being put in place in Central Africa with CEMAC.
Contributing to the implementation of the African Seed and Biotechnology program (ASPB) of the African Union and to the CAADP of NEPAD and, building on the above achievement on harmonization of regulations for seed movement and trade, FAO, the African Seed Network (ASN) and The Ministry for Agriculture of Côte d’Ivoire, successfully conducted a technical workshop on strengthening the vegetable seed systems in Central and West Africa through capacity building, which took place in Abidjan on 25-26 November 2009. The major objectives of this workshop which brought together 34 participants from Central and West African countries were to: i) assess the current status of the vegetable seed systems in selected countries of central and west Africa; ii) identify the training needs and; iii) design an action plan to build the capacity of the farmers, policy makers, regulatory agencies, public and private sector for a sustainable development of vegetable seed delivery systems in Africa
Following the plenary sessions and working group discussions,the workshop participants unanimously decided to establish in each participating country, a national public-private partnership platform of actors from both the seed chain and the entire value chain in order to address together the seed industry development issues such as access to better varieties, quality assurance, coherent and flexible legislation, effective seed demand, access to credit, production infrastructure, price and market for more robust and sustainable vegetable seed production and distribution systems. Building a strong public and private partnership will be beneficial to both the public and private sectors and will contribute to a rapid promotion of the vegetable production