Integrated Seed Delivery Systems

By the term seed system, we refer to the activities, institutions, and actors involved in the development, distribution, and use of seed and other planting material.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Seed System illustration. The formal system is depicted in orange and farmers’ seed systems in blue. Integrated seed delivery systems aim at harnessing the strengths of both formal and informal systems. Credit: Westengen, NMBU 2021.

The prevailing seed systems in Africa can be broadly categorized into three groups as informal, formal and integrated seed supply systems.

The fact that there is a lot of seed- and gene-flow between the formal and the informal seed system has led some authors to suggest that a better term to use is farmers’ seed systems. The relative contribution of each seed system to the national seed supply differs between the InnovAfrica case countries, however farmers’ systems deliver the bulk of the seeds used for most crops in most countries in SSA. In informal seed systems there is no seed certification involved in seed production, and distribution processes are not monitored or controlled by government policies and regulations but rather by local standards, social structures, and norms. The formal seed system is the chain of activities and institutions involved in the breeding and dissemination of certified seeds of improved varieties. Thus at the base of the formal system is the science of plant breeding, in either public organizations or private companies. In all six InnovAfrica case countries the formal seed supply system has been operational for years and the private sectors are also involved at different levels. The strongest involvement of the private sector is found in profitable seed markets such as hybrid maize, vegetable seed and other crops of high commercial value. However, the reach of the formal system remains limited for most crops in most of the InnovAfrica countries and the integrated approach to seed system development has a potential to harness the strengths of both informal and formal seed systems.

Integrated Seed Delivery Systems (ISDS) are also called ‘intermediate seed sector development’, specifically denoting approaches such as community-based seed production and community seedbanks (CSBs). Activities and institutions in this intermediate sector may work at one or several stages in the seed value chain, inter-alia: Participatory plant breeding or variety maintenance at the variety development stage; Participatory varietal selection at the evaluation stage; community based seed production (by single farmers, farmer groups or cooperatives) at the production stage; alternatives to seed certification as quality approval such as ‘Quality Declared Seed’ (QDS), ‘truthfully-labelled’, and ‘farmer-guaranteed seed’ categories.

InnovAfrica has introduced, tested and analyzed these approaches in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Tanzania.

In Ethiopia, InnovAfrica has worked closely together with the ISSD Ethiopia program through the shared partner Haramaya University and the seeds used in the SAI Farmer-led field experiments on Maize/Millet - Legume cropping system are sourced from the integrated seed system existing in the site. In Tanzania, farmer seed producer groups were engaged in seed production and QDS seed production in close collaboration with the local branch of the agricultural research station of the national research organization and certification organization. In Malawi, seed and variety selection has been a central issue in the implementation of the EAS Farmer Participatory Research / Farmer to Farmer Extension (FPR+F2FE) which has been integrated with the Farmer-led field experiments on Maize/Millet - Legume cropping system SAI in the country. Furthermore, the principle of harnessing the local seed system through participatory varietal selection and farmer to farmer extension is fundamental for the Brachiaria forage grass testing and upscaling in Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania. At the policy level, the MAPs have been involved in discussions, giving feedback and dissemination of the concept of integrated seed delivery systems. Thus, ISDS, has been mainstreamed across the innovation levels in InnovAfrica. Currently InnovAfrica team members are part of efforts to put farmers’ seed systems and seed security on the agenda of the UN Food System Summit that will be held in New York in October 2021.  


InnovAfrica report Deliverable 3.3 Strategic Document Strengthening Seed System in the Case Countries (2021)

InnovAfrica Technical Brief on ISDS (2018)

InnovAfrica Journal article about seed system governance (2019)

InnovAfrica report from pilot study on upscaling QDS production in Lindi, Tanzania (2020)


Technical Brief: Integrated Seed System Development

What is Integrated Seed System Development?

Integrated Seed System Development (ISSD) is a term describing approaches to seed delivery that aims at better linking informal and formal seed development and delivery systems (Figure 1). In InnovAfrica project, we define ISSD as an institutional innovation because operationalization takes interventions at several levels; at the seed regulatory framework level as well as at the technical level of seed development and production. The ISSD programme at InnovAfrica partner Wageningen University and Research have defined a set of guiding principles for operationalizing the ISSD approach (Box 1).

Box 1: Guiding principles for operationalization of the ISSD approach

  1. Foster pluralism and build programs on diversity of seed systems
  2. Work according to the structure of the seed value chain
  3. Promote entrepreneurship and market orientation
  4. Recognize the relevance of informal seed systems
  5. Facilitate interactions between informal and formal seed systems
  6. Recognize complementary roles of the public and private sector
  7. Support enabling and evolving policies for a dynamic sector
  8. Promote evidence based seed sector innovation


Figure 1: Linkages between formal and informal seed systems. The blue circle frames the informal system and the arrows indicates seed and gene flow between the systems. Source: After Louwaars and de Boef (2012)

Why and where to establish ISSD?

The ISSD puts the focus squarely on farmers’ seed security (Westengen et al. 2018). The objective is to increase farmers’ access to well adapted and preferred crop varieties. The InnovAfrica case countries differ in degree of recognition and investment in ISSD. In Ethiopia, ISSD is official policy, in Tanzania there is ongoing production and sale of Quality Declared Seed (QDS) which is an ISSD-type seed certification approach, and in Malawi the new national seed policy-2018 allows QDS sale in the country.

Interventions to support ISSD must be tailored to the national and local context in each project site. The first step is to identify the bottlenecks in the current systems as well as the leverage points for interventions (Haug et al. 2016).


Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4

Step 1: Conduct household survey and policy analysis to identify

bottlenecks & leverage points




Step 2: Involve Multi-Actor Platform members




Step 3: Support community seed production





Step 4: Support establishment of demonstration plots & seed fairs




Figure 2: Abdi Rabi Seed Producer Cooperative farmer Boki Dinku in front of his field for seed production contracted with the regional public seed company Oromia Seed Enterprise (Photo: NMBU)
Figure 3: Community Seed Bank operated by the NGO Biodiversity Conservation Institute (BCI) in InnovAfrica project area at Mzimba in Malawi (Photo: NMBU)

A common operationalization of ISSD is to support community seed production and smallholder seed enterprises (Walsh et al. 2013). Such seed production can be both commercial (Figure 2) and noncommercial. Examples of non-commercial approach are “seed loan” schemes in which an institution (such as a cooperative or Community Seed Bank) gives farmers seeds as a loan to be repaid with a seed quantity interest (Figure 3). An ISSD approach to seed certification is seen in QDS system developed by FAO (FAO, 1993) as a less stringent and more locally adapted approach to quality assurance and labeling.


FAO (1993) Plant Genetic Resources Service. Quality declared seed system. FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper 185 Haug R, Hella JP, Nchimbi-Msolla S, Mwaseba DL, Synnevag G (2016) If technology is the answer, what does it take? Development in Practice 26:375-386

Louwaars NP, de Boef WS (2012) Integrated seed sector development in Africa: a conceptual framework for creating coherence between practices, programs, and policies. Journal of Crop Improvement 26:39-59

Walsh S, Remington T, Kugbei S, Ojiewo CO (2013) Review of Community Seed Production Practices in Africa Part 1: Implementation Strategies and Models. Community Seed Produc on 9:3

Westengen OT, Skarbø K, Mulesa TH, Berg T (2018) Access to genes: linkages between genebanks and farmers’ seed systems. Food Security 10:9-25


To better harness their potential for contributing towards food and nutrition security the three different types of seed systems (informal, formal, and intermediate) require different measures. Except for South Africa, the informal seed system supplies most seeds used in the other five InnovAfrica countries. It is important that governments recognize the contribution of informal seed system, make sure that there is legal space for them to operate and consider how the informal system can be mobilized to build capacity on quality seed production in the intermediate seed system approaches. In the following section, we list recommended measures in the three sectors with the view of facilitating for pluralistic seed systems.

An effective and sustainable formal seed system requires a strong policy support, skilled plant breeding team, modest research infrastructure and support, a robust breeding pipeline to develop new crop varieties, smooth variety release and registration process, seed multiplication, and network for seed marketing so that quality seeds of new varieties are accessible to farmers on time at affordable price. Therefore, the policy environment and strength of individual components of seed value chain determine the effectiveness of the seed system. The local seed markets are small and scattered in Africa therefore building regional seed market and increasing Africa’s share in international seed trade are crucial for economically viable and sustainable seed system in Africa. Following the implementing ten years long PASS program by AGRA in eleven African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Tanzania identified the following gaps seen as limiting the growth of national and regional seed markets as: (i) restrictive seed policies in some countries, (ii) limited supply of breeder and foundation seed, (iii) insufficient penetration of seed markets by commercial seed suppliers, (iv) lack of awareness among farmers in outlying areas of the value of improved seed, and (v) supply gaps of improved crop varieties in some agro-ecologies. Based on review of relevant published work, authors own experiences and experience of other actors involved in seed sector in Africa including AGRA, FAO and SSFA we have come-up with some recommendations that can have significant impact in strengthening seeds system in InnovAfrica case countries and in other countries in SSA.

1. Variety development and production of early generation seeds

The new crop varieties are bred for improving range of traits such as maximum response to inputs, high yields, superior qualities, resistance to pests and diseases, resilience to drought and other abiotic and biotic stressors. Development of a new crop variety is a lengthy process that takes two or more years in Africa and limited supply of foundation seeds to the institutions involved in seed multiplication further delay access to a new crop variety by farmers. Farmers in Latin America and the Indian subcontinent have achieved significant gains in the wheat, rice and maize productivity using high input responsive disease resistant varieties which resulted in Green Revolution and freed millions of people from hunger. However, these highly successful technologies elsewhere were less effective in Africa mainly due to less fertile soils to support high yield of improved varieties and extremely diverse cropping systems divided into many small, rain-fed agro-ecologies planted with range of crops (AGRA 2017). Therefore, new variety development efforts in Africa should consider prevailing diversity in cropping systems and agro-ecology diversities in Africa and a decentralized, more locally driven seed supply approach.

Production of early generation seeds are responsibilities of public sector in most InnovAfrica countries. These public sector entities have been historically less able to meet with the demand. They often deal with many varieties of multiple crops and they are also short on human capacity and financial resources. Moreover, most private seed sectors rely on varieties developed by public sectors therefore they also seek public sector support for early generation seeds. Therefore, it is essential to build the capacity of public sector and bring private sectors with technical competency in variety development and foundation seed production on board. For examples, AATF has launched Quali-Basic Seed Company to supply foundation seed of stress-tolerant hybrid maize varieties to the seed industry, and private sector institutions have been engaged in variety development and production of early generation seeds.

2. Improvement and harmonization of seed policies at national and regional levels

The importance of new improved crop varieties and high-quality seeds and their roles in food and nutrition security in Africa have been well recognized by all six InnovAfrica case countries and their respective RECs. Therefore, all member states and RECs have been working towards harmonizing the seed policies and certain aspect of seed regulations to strengthen seed system for increased access of high-quality seeds of improved crop varieties to farmers and to develop regional seed market and increase Africa’s share in international seed trade (Kuhlmann 2015). The seed policy harmonization process initiated in late 1980s by SADC, in 1990s by ECA, and in 2000s by ECOWAS and COMESA have made some progress but the task is complicated by limited resource for supporting legal structure in most members countries, and membership of some countries in more than one RECs. The EAC, COMESA and SADC have agreed in 2008 to develop a joint Free Trade Area, but this is yet to come into full effect (Kuhlmann 2015).

3. Increased awareness of farmers, community leaders and extension agents

A low productivity and high yield gap are common in many farming systems in Africa. It is largely attributed to low adoption rates of improved seeds and related technologies like fertilizers and irrigations. Many smallholder farmers are not aware on new technologies and the benefits these new technologies can offer to them. Similarly, community leaders and extension agents may not have been regularly updated on the new and emerging technologies and their contribution to food and nutrition security and incomes. Therefore, efforts to increase awareness is important for the adoption of improved varieties and other related technologies. This can be achieved through various means such as setting-up demonstration plots, trainings, organizing field days, communicating to farmers through agro-dealers, dissemination of information via radio, television and other communication means. These efforts to awareness will increase adoption of new technologies that leads to market for improved seeds and related inputs, increase in yield and a strong seeds system.

4. Input supply and credit provision

The use of digital information and communication technologies have been very effective means to communicate new technologies and their potential benefits to farmers and other stakeholders. This often generate farmers’ interest to use those technologies. However, due to unavailability of seeds, fertilizers and other necessary inputs and lack of credit provision farmers are unable to adopt new technologies. Therefore, it is important to have input suppliers in proximity and institutions that provide credits to the farmers to try and adoption new technologies.

1. Expanding networks and markets for farmer preferred quality seeds

The involvement of government agencies and development partners in formal seed system have resulted in emergence of local, private, small & medium enterprise, and seed companies. Such efforts and programs enables complementarity with efforts from actors in formal seed system development. The intermediate sector represents an investment opportunity for actors such as NGOs and development agencies aiming at reaching groups that is harder to reach for the formal sector, in line with the Sustainable Development Goal agenda of leaving no one behind. Participatory Plant Breeding and Participatory Varietal Selection are general terms encompassing a range of ways of involving farmers in the development and selection of new varieties and one of the major benefits of these approaches is higher likelihood of adoption of the resulting varieties (Westengen & Winge 2020). Community Seed Banks (CSBs) can work as a back-up site and exchange hub for both local and improve varieties (Vernooy et al. 2015). In many cases CSBs are also integrated with community-based seed production and dissemination (Vernooy et al. 2020). The farmer seed production cooperatives supported by ISSD and the Ethiopian government is an example of how community-based seed production can be scaled up at national level. A prerequisite for such upscaling is government support also for appropriate quality control. This again entails a supportive legislation and policy framework. Taken together, such measures are likely to increase the availability of high-quality farmer preferred seeds, increase incomes of actors involved in the formal or intermediate seed supply systems and lower the risk of counterfeit seed sale. As the certified seed market expands, seed regulatory agencies should increase their capacity to effectively play their oversight roles to cope with increased need for inspection, seed certification and quality control.

2. Build on existing systems, do no harm

In November 2020, a group of seed scholars and practitioners issued a set of short-term and medium-term recommendations in the journal Food Policy ‘to help guide current seed aid response and to anticipate seed system development thrusts of the next two to three years’ (Sperling et al 2020). A key message in the statement is that investment in the seed sector can bring large benefits to farmers and societies, but while poorly conceived interventions that are not adapted to the local context can do serious damage. This is as true in the longer term as it is in the shorter (humanitarian aid) term. Among the features of the statement, we highlight three here:

  • “It recommends support to all seed systems farmers might use - formal, informal and integrated systems.”
  • “Heavy emphasis is placed on proper diagnosis of the problem(s) and learning from the immediate intervention (both actions of which are often treated as optional in real-time practice).”
  • “(…) policy changes will have to be at the forefront of strengthening seed systems. Seed systems need to be better designed to serve all farmers. They need to function better during stress and non-stress periods; to offer diversity; and must reach last mile areas on an ongoing basis. Expanding quality options and opening up sale venues are the first policy areas that require immediate attention” (Sperling et al. 2020).

In line with this, we find the following short-term recommendation especially apt to quote as we conclude this report:

Support to existing seed systems and their linked markets should be a first focus - before outside emergency or development assistance is considered.

In terms of the formal seed system, this translates especially to attention on:

  • Facilitating free movement of seed (“green channels”).
  • Supporting/extending seed inspection capability.
  • Relaxing import regulations.
  • Understanding the impact on access to credit/financial institutions and how possible changes may influence the decisions farmers make.

In terms of the informal seed system, this translates to an emphasis on:

  • Helping farmers to save the seed they have through targeted interventions including messaging and technical support on improved storage options technologies.
  • Supporting local market actors and including traders to move locally produced seed among regions, if needed, and hold staggered market-day sales.
  • Engaging market actors more generally to identify and mitigate COVID-related hurdles that weaken functionality” (Sperling et al. 2020).