USAID Supports Nepal’s Seed Systems to Go Digital: Connecting Farmers and Seed Suppliers during and beyond the COVID-19 Crisis
This post is written by Bandana Pradhan, AbduRahman Beshir, Dyutiman Choudhary and Hari Kumar Shrestha from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
In Nepal, it takes at least a year to collate the demand and supply of a required type and quantity of seed for a planting season. This process constrains farmers’ timely access to quality seed and improved varieties of crops suited to their needs, thereby affecting seed sector growth and agricultural development in Nepal. Since the COVID-19 outbreak and strict lockdown enforced by the government of Nepal, seed markets have been unable to function steadily. A new digital seed information system is likely to change that, as it will enable all value chain actors to access information on seed demand and supply in real time, confronting uncertainty through and beyond the crisis. Having already completed a user acceptance test, this web and Android-based information system is currently being adapted for validation as part of USAID’s Feed the Future Nepal Seed and Fertilizer (NSAF) activity.
In this system, a national database allows easy access to an online seed catalogue where characteristics and sources of all registered varieties are available. A digital seed balance sheet simultaneously gathers and shares real time information on seed demand and supply by all the stakeholders. The digital platform also helps to plan and monitor seed production and distribution over a period of time.
Challenges to seed access
Over 2,500 seed entrepreneurs engaged at various levels in production, processing and marketing of seeds in the country rely on public research centers to get early generation seeds of various crops, especially cereals and pulses, for subsequent seed multiplications.
“The existing seed information channel is strenuous and the process of collecting information takes a minimum of one year before a seed company knows where to get the required amount and type of seed for multiplication,” says Laxmi Kant Dhakal, Chairperson of Seed Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (SEAN) and owner of a seed company in the far west of Nepal. Similarly, more than 700 rural municipalities and local units in Nepal require seeds to multiply under farmers cooperatives in their area.
One of the critical challenges farmers encounter especially in the developing world is timely access to quality seeds, due to unavailability of improved varieties, lack of information about them, and weak planning and supply management. Asmita Shrestha, a farmer in Surkhet district, has been involved in maize farming for the last 20 years. She was unaware of the availability of different types of maize that can be productive in the mid-hills region and therefore lost the opportunity to sow improved maize seeds and produce better harvests.
In Sindhupalchowk district, seed producer Ambika Thapa works in a cooperative and produces hybrid tomato seeds. Her problem was accessing the right market that can provide a good profit for her efforts. A kilogram of hybrid tomato seed can fetch between $1,500-2,000 in a retail and upscale market. However, she is not getting a quarter of this price due to lack of market information and linkages with buyers. This is the story of many Nepali women farmers, who account for over 60 percent of the rural farming community, where lack of improved technologies and access to profitable markets challenge farm productivity.
At present, the Government of Nepal’s Seed Quality Control Center (SQCC) and associated partners are using paper-based data collection systems to record and plan seed production every year. Aggregating seed demand and supply data and generating reports takes at least two to three months. Furthermore, individual provinces need to convene meetings to collect and estimate province-level seed demand that must come from rural municipalities and local bodies. The whole process takes a full year before seed supply and demand actors know the final allocation data.
A digital technology solution
NSAF, in partnership with SQCC under the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD), is leveraging digital technologies to create an efficient, integrated, and dynamic Digitally Enabled Seed Information System (DESIS). This initiative was the result of collaboration between USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab, the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security (RFS) and Feed the Future USAID Missions under ‘Digital Development for Feed the Future’ (D2FTF), which aimed to demonstrate that digital tools and approaches can accelerate progress towards food security and nutrition goals.
The FHI 360 Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project supported by USAID conducted a needs assessment with relevant seed stakeholders in Nepal. Based on this work, NSAF and its partners identified a local IT expert and launched the development of DESIS.
DESIS includes an offline seed catalogue of varieties that have been approved for use by the Nepal government. Users can view seed characteristics, compare seeds and select released and registered varieties available in Nepal. Its filter feature allows users to customize their search for varieties and can also generate seed quality reports on batches of seeds. The seed catalogue is based on an open source software and available on Android App where users can access the information in Nepali and English on their mobile devices.
The system will also provide an automated version of the seed balance sheet. Using unique logins, seed-demanding agencies will be able to place their requests and seed producers to post their seed supplies. The platform will help to aggregate and efficiently manage breeder, foundation and source seed, as well as certified and labelled seed.
“As the main host of this system, the platform is well designed and perfectly applicable to the needs of SQCC,” says Madan Thapa, Chief of SQCC, during the initial user tests held at his office in late 2019. “Serving as an effective decision-making tool, SQCC can conveniently plan for a strategy to meet the seed demand and supply of varieties in the Provinces,” added Thapa. He also expressed the potential of the platform to include variable features to meet the evolving needs of Nepal’s seed sector.
The seed balance sheet will also link farmers to seed suppliers and buyers, to build a better internal Nepali seed market. The larger goal of DESIS is to help farmers produce higher yields and improve livelihoods, while contributing to food security nationwide.
Under the leadership of SQCC, this new digital platform will be made available to seed system stakeholders in Nepal. NSAF and SQCC will continue organizing a series of trainings to demonstrate the use of the tool to various seed stakeholders including the National Agricultural Research Center, private seed companies, development partner organizations and cooperatives at the provincial level. In order to effectively and safely support vulnerable Nepali farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the MoALD plans to integrate its seed subsidy scheme into this digital platform.
Following the ongoing validation and stakeholders’ awareness trainings, DESIS is planned to go live in Nepal in June 2020. Primary users will be seed companies, agricultural research centers, MoALD, agrovets, cooperatives, farmers, development partners, universities, researchers, policy makers, and international institutions.
“It is highly secure, user friendly and easy to update,” says Warren Dally, an IT consultant from Ireland who currently oversees the technical details of the software and the implementation process.
Pathways Technology is a local IT firm in charge of the platform development. Enhancing strategic partnerships with available private firms and leveraging their capabilities is essential to facilitate strong and sustainable seed systems in the country.
NSAF is also working to roll out digital seed inspection and a Quick Response (QR) code-based quality certification system. The higher vision of the system is to create a seed data warehouse, hosted by SQCC, that integrates the seed information portal and seed market information system.
Digital solutions are critical to linking the agricultural market with vital information on which to base decisions for better production and harvest. This digital system will help streamline the national seed information system to enhance production and advance connectivity in agriculture in Nepal. During a time of restricted movement and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can see more clearly than ever how critical it is for agriculture to go digital. Fortunately, it will not be long before farmers like Asmita and Ambika can easily access information using their mobile phones on the type of varieties suitable to grow in their region and the best market to sell their products.