A labour shortage, border closures and restrictions on movements are contributing to the challenges that some companies are facing as they struggle to get quality seeds to farmers as the planting season kicks in across the continent.

This is prompting fears about food security.

Due to Covid-19, it has been difficult for some African seed companies to produce and import sufficient quantities of quality certified seeds.

The situation is raising fears that farm productivity will decline and threaten food security, as seed shortages are predicted for most staple crops.

“COVID-19 came at a time when a lot of the seed companies were preparing to clean their seeds or preparing to import,” Augusta Nyamadi Clottey, executive secretary of the National Seed Trade Association of Ghana (NASTAG), explained. “The lockdown came in March. And we were supposed to start planting in March. Most of the seeds we were expecting from outside have not come in.”

Ghana imports a lot of its improved vegetable and other seeds, as well as other agricultural inputs, from Europe, Asia and America. These products are now more expensive to bring in because borders have been closed to commercial flights.

“Now, instead of passenger flight, you have to rent a flight,” Clottey said. “And that is adding to the cost. The cost difference is about 15 to 20 per cent. Unfortunately, the seed company has to bear all this cost. It means profit margins are decreasing, the production cost is increasing.”

Even local seed companies that produce certified seeds for sale to farmers are struggling to get the labour to operate smoothly because of COVID-19.

“Most companies who were cleaning their seeds use labour. The final thing is done by human beings. And because of lockdown, and with COVID, they are not getting people to do the cleaning. Even picking seeds in the field is a challenge. So, if we are not careful, quality may be compromised at a point in time,” she said in a webinar session on the impact of COVID-19 on the seed industry that was organized by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa.

“In Upper East Region, one company uses 150 women to do the final cleaning of the seed,” she added. “Now they are getting only 25 people. Labour is a real challenge. Most of the labourers in the south come from the north and cannot come down south now because of COVID. Most of those in the north come from across the border, Burkina Faso, but are unable to come from across the border now to work because the border is closed.”

Several other parts of Africa are facing challenges with producing quality seeds for farmers as a result of the pandemic. Quoting forecasts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other sub-regional bodies, CORAF — an association of national agricultural and research organizations of 22 West and Central African countries — predicts COVID will cause a shortfall of certified seeds of various staple crops for the 2020 cropping season across the sub-region. Crops to be affected include maize, sorghum, millet, cowpea and groundnuts.

Cowpea, for example, is a popular food high in protein which is consumed by about 200 million people in Africa. Demand for certified cowpea seeds for the 2020 crop season in Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Cape Verde and the Gambia is projected at 150,000 metric tons. But CORAF projects only 2,800 metric tons of certified cowpea seeds will be available for the 2020 cropping season in these countries because of COVID-19. There is also a shortage of certified groundnut seeds. The Sahel Region of West Africa needs 250,000 metric tons of certified groundnut seeds for the 2020 crop season. But only 5,000 metric tons are projected to be available.

In 12 West African countries, including Benin, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal and Cape Verde, less than 10,000 metric tons of certified sorghum and millet seeds will be available in the 2020 cropping season, falling far short of a projected demand of 100,000 metric tons, according to CORAF. And although these countries will need 200,000 metric tons of certified maize seeds, only 70,000 metric tons will be available during the current cropping season.

“Unless swift action is taken to facilitate producers’ access to seeds and other inputs, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 will inevitably lead to a decrease in agricultural production due to the unavailability of required quality seeds to plant at the right time.” CORAF cautions. “Concerted effort should be made to ensure the availability and access to certified seeds of major staple food crops in the ECOWAS and Sahel region to avert the looming consequences of the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on agricultural production.”

Certified seeds are high-quality seeds produced under strict standards by licensed seed firms to ensure they have high germination and productivity rates. The use of low-quality seeds is known to be responsible for low productivity on farms across Africa. More than 70 per cent of farmers on the continent still do not have access to improved, quality seeds. In the absence of high-quality seeds because of COVID-19, productivity on farms is likely to hit rock bottom and make it more difficult for farmers to feed themselves and their families.

“It is a universal truism that quality seeds exert a profound influence on agricultural productivity, enhancing yield sometimes by as much as 20 to 25 per cent, or even more if deployed in the context of an improved input package,” Josiah Wobil, chairman of Ghana’s National Seed Council, observed. “We had been making very good progress until this year. The introduction of the pandemic into West Africa has changed the ball game and really disturbed smooth sailing into large scale seed production.”

The African Seed Trade Association, the continental mother association of seed sector actors, has called for concerted efforts to ensure quality and improved seeds reach farmers in a timely manner, despite the pandemic.

“The movement of seed within a country and across borders should not be affected, considering that coronaviruses have poor survivability on surfaces, and it is highly improbable that coronaviruses can survive international transport,” Justin Rakotoarisaona, secretary-general of the association, said in a statement copied to Alliance for Science. “This is especially true for shipments of seed handled by professional seed companies that already respect strict sanitary, phytosanitary and hygienic handling protocol.

“Closing borders or even slowing down the cross-border seed movement creates a significant problem in the seed supply chain domestically, regionally and globally,” Rakotoarisaona continued. “In a number of regions, it is now the planting season and timely delivery of seed and other agricultural inputs is crucial to ensure farmers plant on time in order to ensure food security, especially after the health crisis.”

Eric Danquah, professor and founding director of the West Africa Center for Crop Improvement at the University of Ghana, said COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in the agricultural supply chain systems across the continent that need to be addressed immediately.

“It is troubling that commitment to the sector by governments has been waning, even as countries face some of the greatest threats in history, including population growth and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted food supply chains on an unprecedented scale,” he said. “Obviously, business as usual approach will worsen the already troubling food and nutrition security situation. Whether the food system, especially in West Africa, emerges stronger or more fragile will depend on what is urgently done to create self-reliant food systems.”

Government officials on the continent are telling a different story and offering assurances that there is no need to panic.

“We have met with seed companies. They have assured us a lot of seeds are in the country. It’s only the vegetables that we now have a bit of it coming in. But that is not a problem…,” Dr Solomon Gyan Ansah, deputy director of agriculture at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, said.

“In fact, this pandemic has really prompted government [to recognize] that at any point in time, we should have some seeds that are secured to be used in times of disaster. And I believe the government will put measures in place to make sure that we have seeds at all times to be used,” he added.