Failures, corporate occupation, and the rise of digitalised seed trade: dire implications for farmer managed seed and food systems in Africa

Regional seed policy harmonisation processes on seed and plant variety protection (PVP) legislation have been underway for the past 15 years on the African continent. These have taken place under the auspices of various regional economic communities (RECs), including the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), East Africa Community (EAC), and regional organisations such as the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO). These processes have now moved to the continental level under the African Union (AU) and are further linked with the wider industrialisation plan under Agenda 2063 and the ambitious African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). These aim to provide the political and institutional framework for regional seed trade across the continent.

This paper follows up on the previous extensive body of research and advocacy undertaken by the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and numerous African CSOs over the last decade, especially while focusing also on emerging issues and challenges. 

We have found that seed marketing harmonisation processes have received support from various entities, including international development agencies and the Bill Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Our research and analysis reveal a mixed bag of results, including some glaring failures due to several complexities. Regarding PVP harmonisation efforts, this has also not made any strides in both the cases of the SADC and Arusha PVP Protocols, which are based on the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1991. The dominance of multinational corporations in regional seed catalogues raises serious concerns about corporate occupation, and that regional seed harmonisation efforts are providing platforms for multinational companies to expand their footprint on the continent.

We are witnessing how seed regulatory challenges at the regional levels have ushered in the unregulated use of digital tools and platforms, enabling the corporatisation and privatisation of seed systems and the concentration of data in the hands of a few powerful entities. 

The continental push for harmonisation under the AfCFTA raises deep concerns as the commercial seed sector and private industry continue to gain dominance, and farmer managed seed systems (FMSS) and agricultural biodiversity suffer dire neglect. The Intellectual Property (IP) Protocol of the AfCFTA, ‘Protocol to the Agreement Establishing the Africa Continental Free Trade Area on Intellectual Property Rights’, which covers PVP, will potentially be based on UPOV 1991 and thus criminalise FMSS and farmers’ rights. 

As we peer into the future governance of seed and seed trade on the continent, questions arise about the implications for smallholder farmers and their seed and food systems. We are gravely concerned about the concentration of corporate power and that the advent of digitalisation is further complicating the governance of the seed sector.

We thus call for an urgent re-evaluation of regional seed harmonisation efforts in Africa. It is clear that a new approach is needed. We strongly recommend the following:

  1. Policymakers must prioritise agroecology and FMSS, which promote social justice and environmental sustainability rather than pursuing a one-size-fits-all extractive industrial model, which favours multinational seed companies and the private sector. In this regard, it is crucial that they prioritise public investments in food and seed systems that sustain and conserve agricultural biodiversity, support smallholder farmers, and align with Afrocentric approaches to minimise harm to the continent’s agricultural fragile ecology.
  2. Governments should urgently rethink the trajectory of seed harmonisation and demand that any funding for regional harmonisation processes is directed towards supporting systems’ change at the national, regional, and continental levels, towards ecologically sustainable and socially just and equitable seed, food, and agricultural systems. 
  3. African governments that have not yet ratified the SADC and Arusha PVP Protocols should refrain from doing so and uphold the rights of small-scale farmers to their resources, including their seed, seed systems and knowledge systems.
  4. In regard to the development of the IP Protocol of the AfCFTA, we urge member states of the AU to exempt least-developed countries from implementing the Protocol, in line with the extension granted to them until 2034 to implement their obligations under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Further, the development of the PVP Annex must ensure the democratic participation of African CSOs, especially small-scale farmers, and it must expressly not be based on UPOV 1991.
  5. Regarding the digitalisation of the seed system, stringent regulations should be put in place to safeguard data privacy, transparency, and the rights of farmers and citizens, and national sovereignty, and measures must be put in place to restrict the privatisation of data. 

Please click here to read the briefing paper.