How to Maximize Donor Funding for Smallholder Seed Commercialization
Since 2012, Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation has built 75 partnerships with agribusinesses in 24 countries to help them sell 145 potentially transformational agricultural technologies and management practices to smallholder farmers. Key among these have been new crop varieties realized from improved seeds that yield larger harvests, produce higher-value traits, thrive in changing climates and increase nutrition through vitamin enrichment.
Ensuring access to these seeds and varieties is paramount to improving smallholders’ food security and resilience outcomes. However, the private seed sector is largely dominated by local and regional seed companies and, despite their strong local presence in specialized markets, these companies tend to lack the capacity and infrastructure to effectively deliver new varieties into the hands of smallholder customers. Over the last decade, Partnering for Innovation has worked diligently to bridge this gap by collaborating with more than 20 seed and input companies to bring new seed varieties and support services to market.
In 2021, Partnering for Innovation analyzed its investment portfolio in seed commercialization to identify common findings of use to donors for strategic investments in growing the commercial seed value chain. This effort has resulted in Partnering for Innovation’s new report, Commercializing Seed Technologies: A Decade of Lessons Learned.
The report builds on a similar study conducted by the program in 2016, Bringing Seeds to Market, which outlined critical gaps in the seed value chain that contribute to increased risk of market entry and prevent private sector companies from meeting the needs of smallholder customers. While the 2016 report focused primarily on program partners’ abilities to profitably replicate, package and distribute high-quality seed to smallholder customers, this new report captures the impact of more recent program partnerships’ use of sophisticated marketing, distribution and sales strategies. Together, the two reports are complementary and offer recommendations applicable across companies, countries and contexts for donors investing in the seed value chain.
Strategic Investment Essential
The Commercializing Seed Technologies: A Decade of Lessons Learned report finds that public funding can indeed help decrease corporate risk, support private sector investment in developing smallholder markets and provide a critical bridge to private sector companies interested in bringing new seed products to market. This funding, however, must be applied strategically over time, at different points in the seed value chain and to a variety of actors, including research institutions, seed companies, infrastructure investors, logistics providers and grain processors.
The report also provides donors with a seed commercialization analysis framework to guide decision-making. The framework identifies common bottlenecks that program partners faced bringing new seed varieties to market, as well as some of the hard-won lessons learned for donors supporting private sector seed commercialization. Drawing from Partnering for Innovation’s recent portfolio, the report presents four case partner studies that highlight critical seed commercialization bottlenecks and offer valuable insights for maximizing public investment impact on smallholder production, market access, income opportunities and overall food security.
Finally, the report provides the following set of key recommendations of use to donors undertaking strategic investments in seed commercialization:
- Donors should ensure that public-private partnerships are in place before the start of the research and development process. Consumer preferences tend to take a back seat to improved traits for pest resistance, drought tolerance or nutritional content. Both production and marketing needs must be taken into account before the development process even begins, and the best way to do that is to build formal, private sector partnerships from the outset.
- Donors should support seed companies by investing in other actors throughout the value chain to build a sustainable market ecosystem. Last-mile distribution, logistics and marketing are often too expensive for individual seed companies to cover profitably. Therefore, donors should give equal consideration to distribution companies, logistics providers and other input suppliers to accelerate the growth of last-mile distribution and market networks to reach sustainable scale.
- Donors should look for funding opportunities to support more sophisticated approaches in marketing smallholder seed products. Seed companies tend to struggle in executing innovative sales strategies to clearly defined smallholder customer segments. Donors can have a major impact on private sector sales capacity by leveraging a variety of pathways and partnerships to drive seed sales to smallholder farmers.
- Donors should cultivate more strategic funding portfolios that support different value chain actors along a longer time horizon. Establishing a sustainable seed market requires strategic investment, smallholder behavior change and enabling environment improvements. By strategically investing over a longer period of time as the seed market matures, donors can have a more systemic and sustainable impact on smallholder access to new seed technologies.