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The seed industry as a whole offers a wide choice of crops, while regional companies broaden the availability of seeds for local crops and open-pollinated varieties. Less attention is paid to smallholder-appropriate affordability strategies.
Companies can improve access to seeds by offering smallholder farmers a diverse portfolio of crops and varieties. Adoption of new technologies can be promoted via tailored packaging, trusted distribution channels and demonstration plots.
Collectively, companies sell a broad portfolio of crops and varieties across the region, including open-pollinated varieties and local crops. Sales activities are concentrated in India and Bangladesh, followed closely by Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Afghanistan and Laos rarely feature on companies’ commercial radar. Of the 24 companies in the index, six report having distribution channels in over half of the countries, namely Acsen HyVeg, East-West Seed, Takii, Corteva Agriscience, Namdhari Seeds and Sakata.
Most companies report having systems in place to service remote areas. East-West Seed’s leadership in seed accessibility is not only due to its presence in all index countries but also to the extensive geographical reach of its marketing and sales team. None of the companies specifically target women smallholder farmers in their marketing strategies, with the notable exception of Namdhari Seeds. Companies typically partner with distributors and local retailers, or agro-dealers, to reach smallholder farmers. East-West Seed stands out for its ‘pre-commercial’ activities, whereby dedicated field staff are tasked with developing a commercial infrastructure to reach smallholder farmers in remote areas, including hard-to-access regions, in Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Several companies have an extensive sales network in their home country, such as Nuziveedu Seeds in India and BRAC Seed and Agro Enterprise in Bangladesh.
Companies generally dedicate a large part of their marketing efforts to demonstration and promotion activities. Field days are a common way for companies to engage smallholder farmers by showcasing new varieties and planting techniques. ‘Seeing is believing’ is an often-used phrase, and explains the resources companies devote to convincing smallholder farmers of the advantages of using their seeds. Companies report focusing heavily on a handful of countries, particularly India, Thailand and the Philippines, whereas other countries, such as Laos, Nepal, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, see little to no activity in demonstration and promotion.
Women smallholder farmers do not appear to be a specific target for these activities. However, some companies, such as East-West Seed and Syngenta, indicate that this is changing as they increasingly recognize the role of women farmers in agriculture. Namdhari Seeds’ development and marketing of one of its okra varieties was based on input received from women farmers, and shows that seed companies can play a proactive role in integrating women farmers’ voices in their marketing and sales strategies.
All companies have a portfolio that includes vegetable seeds, with the exception of Corteva Agriscience, a US-based company that only sells field crop seeds. Similarly, many companies offer at least one local crop. Local crops, also called ‘orphan’, ‘neglected’ or ‘underutilized’ crops, are considered important in a specific region and can address food security needs or cultural preferences. Mustard, particularly in South Asia, is the most common local crop, found in the portfolio of ten companies, both regional and global. In addition, local crops such as yardlong bean and amaranth are offered by six companies.
Global companies Limagrain and East-West Seed and regional company National Seeds Corporation offer the broadest range of local crops. Limagrain offers, among others, mizuna, choisam and komatsuna, while East-West Seed’s portfolio includes kailaan, bush sitao and pea eggplant. The portfolio of National Seeds Corporation includes lentil, mung bean and black gram, all pulses with great importance for nutrition and food security in the region. Also notable is edible chrysanthemum in the portfolio of Known-You Seed, the only index company with this flower listed as a vegetable crop.
Generally, regional companies supply open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) for multiple crops for which hybrid varieties are also available. OPVs often imply lower costs, different input and planting requirements and the option of saving seeds for the next season. National Seeds Corporation and Acsen HyVeg, both from India, are the only two companies that sell both OPVs and hybrid varieties for more than 75% of the crops in their portfolio.
Typically, companies sell OPVs for less than half of the crops in their portfolio. Global companies generally do not have OPVs in their portfolio. Mahyco and Bioseed are examples of regional companies that focus heavily on hybrids.
Generally, regional companies offer a broad portfolio in their home country but a smaller number of crops abroad. Acsen HyVeg, for instance, offers 16 crops in India but does not commercialize more than half of its portfolio in any other country. Several global companies with extensive geographical reach make a significant portion of their general portfolio available in most countries in South and Southeast Asia.
East-West Seed is notable for offering its entire portfolio in all index countries. This indicates that a business case can be made for the provision of a wide range of crops by global companies. Limagrain and Takii are other global companies with extensive geographical reach that also offer a broad portfolio in the region.
The vast majority of companies adapt their packaging to smallholder farmers. Local languages can be found on most packages, either as a legal requirement or as a marketing strategy. Small packages, suitable for smaller acreage, range from just six seeds for some vegetable crops up to 1kg for field crops.
Pictograms, which are particularly suited to illiterate farmers, are common on the packages of four global companies: Bayer, East-West Seed, Sakata and Syngenta. East-West Seed takes the lead, however, with its innovative ‘Go Grow’ packages.
Most companies acknowledge that they have a role to play in helping smallholder farmers to identify appropriate inputs other than seed and providing training on the correct and safe use of these inputs. However, companies differ widely in their approach. Some companies, such as Syngenta, Bayer and Charoen Pokphand, are agrochemical companies and supply seeds alongside other inputs including pesticides and fertilizers.
These companies naturally offer comprehensive approaches to using these inputs. However, seed-only company East-West Seed provides detailed recommendations on how smallholders can prepare organic fertilizers and locally sourced pesticides. In Bangladesh, BRAC Seed and Agro Enterprise provides mineral micronutrients to improve the soil, and in India, Kalash Seeds supplies irrigation equipment to smallholder farmers.
Affordability programs are a way for companies to increase adoption of seeds. Generally, companies do not play a very proactive role in improving affordability, other than reducing package sizes or participating in government subsidy programs, in which Namdhari Seeds and Metahelix are involved. However, a few initiatives stand out. Corteva Agriscience’s Replanting Assistance Program in the Philippines helps maize and rice farmers to repurchase seeds at a discount after natural disasters.
Similarly, the Syngenta Foundation is involved in an insurance scheme in multiple countries in the region, acting as an intermediary between smallholder farmers and insurance companies. The most innovative example in this area is Advanta’s okra assurance scheme, which the company reports is the first non-weather-related scheme of its kind.
Most seed companies follow strict international quality standards. Indeed, 21 out of the 24 companies disclose details of their quality assurance mechanisms on their websites, demonstrating the industry’s commitment to delivering quality to its customers. Companies have established channels to receive complaints and feedback from customers. Sixteen companies have established after-sales mechanisms, such as complaint procedures through apps or phone lines.
However, companies adopt different strategies when addressing the issues of expired and counterfeit seeds. Counterfeit seeds pose an increasing problem in the sector. According to the International Seed Federation, counterfeit seeds can include parental line theft, the use of counterfeit labels or the unauthorized use of varieties. Of the ten companies with a clear approach to addressing counterfeit seeds, Syngenta’s is the most extensive and covers packaging features, a detailed Security Code of Practice and a ‘big fish’ strategy targeting higher value cases in the distribution chain. Of the seven companies with a policy on expired seeds, Namdhari Seeds is the most detailed and aims to ensure that its distributors remove expired seeds from their shelves and return them.
In each measurement areas activities or approaches are identified that stand out or can be considered innovative in the industry. They contribute to the score of a company through leadership indicators.
East-West Seed’s marketing and sales approach, which is tailored entirely to the needs of smallholder farmers, is leading in the industry in South and Southeast Asia. The company, which originates in Thailand but has global activities, stands out for its innovative ‘Go Grow’ packages, available in the Philippines and Thailand, which can feature pictograms and a QR code, allowing farmers to access its Plant Doctor ITC service.
The company’s broad portfolio, which is available in all countries in the region and includes a high number of local crops, is also worthy of recognition. Moreover, the company’s far-reaching distribution channels are reported to supply seeds to remote areas.
Advanta demonstrates leadership with its okra assurance scheme in India. Under this initiative, smallholder farmers were provided, at no extra cost, with assurance against yellow vein mosaic virus and okra leaf curl virus on its okra hybrid during the peak virus infestation season in 2017.
The scheme is the first of its kind, according to Advanta, as other insurance schemes only protect against weather anomalies. Advanta worked with multiple partners to install weather stations and a digital database to track and maintain crop health and performance.
BRAC Seed and Agro Enterprise, based in Bangladesh, reportedly employs a fine-meshed distribution network to reach smallholder farmers at the farm gate in its home market.
The company works with 650 agro-dealers and 7,000 retailers across the country. It reaches remote areas through a door-to-door sales scheme, with the aim of also reaching women smallholder farmers.
To facilitate access to quality commercial seed by smallholder farmers, Acsen HyVeg has a policy to purposely make available OPVs for all crops in its portfolio.