Feed the Future
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What Can Seed Growers Learn from Cigarette Companies?

Originally posted on Feed The Future Partnering for Innovation Blog by Bob Rabatsky, Director at Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation.

Poster from the 2005 movie,“If only we could sell bean seeds like cigarettes,” muses Luis Flores, a researcher at Michigan State University. “Cigarettes are in every rural market. You have to give credit to this very effective sales force as they get a message across to the consumer through flashy posters, banners, and radio.” Bean seeds, however, are more difficult to find and are not packaged and marketed in a way that draws consumers. Yet improved bean varieties can give rural farmers the significant increase in yields they need and want to proudly show off their fields to neighboring farmers. The demand for the product on the market is already there.

Flores and his colleagues at the Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program (Pulse CRSP) at Michigan State University have developed bean varieties that produce significantly higher yields and are more pest resistant than those traditionally grown in Central America. Why isn’t showing smallholder farmers bean seeds that can produce 50 percent or higher yield increases enough to create a mob scene at rural ag supply shops? Because beans are tricky. They are open pollinated, which means farmers can use the same seed from one cycle to another and still get high germination rates. Plus, in the developing world, farmers do not have easy access to improved varieties, so using seed from previous cropping cycles is the norm. But the yields DO drop off.

Seeds from previous crops that were not produced under seed production practices can carry forward seed borne diseases, leading to poor blooming, pod count, and lower yields. Moreover, a culture of buying seeds to increase yields does not exist among small-scale bean farmers who prefer to get seeds from their close social network and trust that they came from good fields. Flores believes they would reconsider if they were to realize the improved results that the large-scale farmers see. The Collaborative Research Support Programs (CRSPs) are great at conducting research but not at commercializing what they develop. USAID is trying to change this by encouraging CRSP scientists to think about more effective ways to bring research into practical use in marketplaces.

Beans, unfortunately, are bulky, expensive to transport, and have to be stored under cool and dry conditions. Often small ag depots do not have the space and equipment, while commercial seed companies avoid beans because of this added expense. In addition, the low sales margins compared to hybrid vegetable and cereal seeds does not make it an attractive investment for seed companies.

So why aren’t seeds marketed like cigarettes? Cigarette vendors are in every market in even the most remote rural areas. The cigarette companies understand the importance of packaging, presentation, and pricing. It is a low value and high volume business. As we work to distribute improved agriculture technologies—including seeds, fertilizers, equipment, and irrigation—to this bottom-of-the-pyramid marketplace, we can learn a lot from consumer product companies that seem to have “mastered the game.”

Seed bags

Partnering for Innovation is proudly implemented by Fintrac Inc., a worldwide leader in generating rural income and food security. This essay is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID.) The contents of this blog post are the sole responsibility of Fintrac Inc. and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.