A meeting is to be held in London on 23 March by predominantly white men, with a sprinkling of Africans, some of whom represent private seed companies, to discuss how to make a killing off Africa’s seed systems.

Farmers and civil society organisations have not been invited to the meeting, which will be attended only by private seed companies, donors, representatives from Africa’s regional economic communities, research centres and multinational development organisations.

The meeting will discuss a study produced by Monitor-Deloitte, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and USAID. BMGF is a big sponsor of the commercialisation of agriculture in Africa, including through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Working with USAID, this commercial agenda extends US foreign policy into Africa and threatens the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers who rely on recycling seed for their livelihoods.

The goal of the Deloitte study is to develop models for commercialisation of seed production in Africa, especially on early generation seed (EGS), and to identify ways in which the African public sector could facilitate private involvement in African seed systems. The study was conducted in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia on maize, rice, sorghum, cowpea, common beans, cassava and sweet potato.

The report exposes a typical approach of private sector “cherry picking”, where private companies identify any profitable activities for their own involvement. While complaining incessantly about “heavy state involvement” they still insist on selected heavy state involvement to cover unprofitable activities so that the private sector can take the profitable activities. These includes establishing systems, developing institutions, and even engaging in some productive activities where profits are unlikely but which are needed to allow the profit-making scheme to function.

The Monitor-Deloitte report uses cowpea production in Ghana as an example of where the public sector should carry the extremely expensive improved cowpea breeder seed costs to allow the private sector to profit in seed multiplication and distribution. Breeder seed is prohibitively costly because of low multiplication rates and low demand. But the demand that exists is nonetheless lucrative, so the private sector wants to be involved only in the parts of the production process identified as profitable. Where the whole chain is profitable, such as hybrid maize or in closed value chains where there is strong but limited demand and early production processes are also potentially profitable, for example hybrid sorghum for brewing, Deloitte proposes the public sector be locked out of the production process.

A potential role for farmers in the production or distribution of seed is not even considered. Indeed farmers are viewed only as passive consumers of seed produced elsewhere.

The exclusive meeting in London and the focus of the report on how private interests can profit from essential life processes in African agriculture exposes the agendas of the BMGF and USAID. It is disappointing that the African Union is willing to endorse such blatantly neo-colonialist plans.

ACB insists that an equitable and sustainable solution to seed production and distribution can only come from direct engagement with farmers and their organisations to ensure their active involvement in these activities. We further insist that public-farmer partnerships to improve seed that integrates farmer and scientific knowledge will generate a more accountable process, and produce longer-lasting and more meaningful solutions for African agricultural production, than these profit-driven, exclusive and narrow processes.

Contact: comms@acbio.org.za