Solving the ‘’last mile’’ challenge of maize seeds

Posted on Eastern Africa News, Eastern Africa News, Media&Stories, News, News & Media, News & Stories, March 15, 2019

Agrodealers play a pivotal role in delivering the gains of the green revolution to millions of smallholders in Africa, providing access to key inputs like improved maize varieties. So far, seed systems research has mainly focused on the factors influencing farmers’ adoption of new varieties, and, to a lesser extent, why seed companies will invest or not in a new improved variety. While private, independent agrodealers are key to provide new improved seeds, fertilizers, and agronomic advices, relatively little is known about who they are, their needs and constraints, and the ways in which they secure and grow their business.

Philomena Mwangi in her agrodealer shop in Ngarariga village

Understanding how to better support agro-dealers is important for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to ensure that new varieties reach the largest possible number of farmers. Under the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project, CIMMYT has launched a new research effort to better understand agrodealers in Kenya, with a specific focus on maize seed marketing.

Researchers are now testing the tools and expect to begin field work in March 2019, during the next maize planting season. ‘’We want to collect detailed quantitative and qualitative data about the way agrodealers choose what maize varieties they sell, and how they market these seeds to farmers’’, explained CIMMYT associate scientist Pieter Rutsaert who leads the study. Such research will provide valuable insights for the seed sector to improve their marketing strategies, as well as to government agencies, NGOs and funders in order to better design future agro-dealer interventions, for a greater and more sustainable impact.

The million-shilling question

Enumerator Victor Kitoto explaining the investment game to Philomena Mwangi

The way questions are selected and phrased, and data collected is critical. ‘’Figuring out how to ask the right question to the right person is a hard business, especially when we ask agro-dealers to evaluate their own performance’’, recognized Rutsaert. For instance, how do you estimate the importance of maize seed sales compared to other inputs and services when the owner, like this seventy-year-old lady, proud owner of a farm input shop in Kikuyu town, is hesitant to provide information about her business to outsiders. You may get a lot of ‘’katikati’’ answers (average in kiswahili). Anticipating the challenges of collecting reliable and comparable data, Rutsaert’s team will use several visual tools, like illustrated cards, to facilitate conversations with interviewees. They will also use innovative exercises like the shop investment game, where owners are asked how they would invest one million Kenyan shillings (about US$10,000).

Standing behind the counter of her shop, with few bags of feeding supplements for dairy cattle and small pesticide bottles on dusty shelves, Philomena Muthoni Mwangi explained she had currently no maize seeds for sale. This small agrodealer in the village of Ngarariga, in central Kenya will restock her maize seeds at the onset of the rainy season, from a big agrovet shop nearby. This is quite common as agrodealers are not risktakers when it comes to selling new varieties, not knowing the future demand. Leftover seed stock after the planting season would severely reduce her potential profit as margins per bag are low. To address this issue, CIMMYT researchers will conduct an intercept farmer survey in the coming weeks, to better understand what farmers look for when buying maize seeds.

Agro-dealers are not a homogeneous group as there is a world apart between the Kikuyu town one stop shop visited earlier, and Mwangi’s small farm input shack. While both owners were enthusiast when asked the final exercise about their shop’s future and how they would invest if given one million shillings, their business models, seed marketing strategy and type of clients may differ a lot. This study will provide useful insights to design targeted seed scaling strategies that consider all kinds of agrodealers, moving away from a ‘’one-size-fits-all’’ approach.

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