Finding fakes: Mobile phones help detect counterfeit seeds in Kenya

  • By Wesley Langat
  • 16/11/2018

Rift Valley farmer Moses Dapash Inspects a field on his wheat and maize farm in the village of Ntulele, Kenya, June 29, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Wesley Langat

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NTULELE, Kenya - Besides more unpredictable weather and changing crop diseases, Kenyan farmers face another worry: counterfeit seed.

Seed sold as something other than it is - the wrong variety or with the wrong characteristics, sometimes marketed with a falsfied certificate of authenticity - can make the difference between a bumper crop and a failed harvest, farmers say.

But a push by the Kenya Seed Company, a government-owned firm, to help farmers verify the authenticity of seed via mobile phone technology, is paying off, farmers and other backers say.

"The government is trying its level best to ensure that farmers get the best inputs," said Peter Chemuigut, director of Kenya's government-owned Agricultural Development Corporation.

Use of poor quality or uncertified seed costs African farmers hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Better seed, meanwhile - including that bred to help farmers withstand harsher droughts, extreme heat or worsening flooding associated with climate change - can help farmers substantially boost harvests, crop experts say.

Under the Kenya Seed Company effort, the firm has attached stickers inside bags of seed that contain a scratch-off code.

Farmers send the code via SMS message and get an instant response as to whether the code - and the seed - is valid, said Esther Cherop, a saleswoman at Kenya Seed Company.

"That way, a farmer goes ahead and plants knowing that the seeds are of good quality and certified," she said.

Moses Dapash, 38, a farmer from the Rift Valley village of Ntulele, in one of the country's best agricultural regions, said the system helped him identify a faked seed package last year.

"I didn't want to take chances. I verified all the seeds before planting," he said.

"Unfortunately I found out that one packet was not certified but when I called the Kenya Seed Company, they acted promptly and I was asked to return the seeds," he said.

The system helped him bring in a good harvest this year, he said - and enough cash to begin repaying some of the losses from three years ago, when his crops failed due to harsh weather, diseases and what he believes was a fake seed problem.

"I can't tell exactly if it was solely fake maize seeds, diseases or drought," he said. "What I know is that, I went into a huge loss of 1.5 million shillings" or about $14,700, said Dapash, who farms more than 100 acres in Narok County.

Cherop said the phone messaging system also helps Kenya Seed Company track locations where counterfeit seed packets are common, to hone in on offenders.

"With the mobile phone technology, we can track and map effectively areas with rampant cases of fake seeds," she said.

In spots where lots of counterfeit seeds are reported, "our team will move swiftly and together with our appointed agro-dealers we can easily address the issue," she said.

COST CHALLENGES

Good quality seed is crucial to helping small-scale farmers - who grow much of sub-Saharan Africa's food - secure a harvest. But some farmers struggle to find the cash to pay for better seed, including hybrid varieties - one reason cheaper options continue to be a temptation, or the only option.

Musa Kuyoni, another farmer in the village of Ntulele, said financial pressures after failed harvests have at times pushed him to buy cheap local seed rather than more expensive certified seed, which has led to some crop failures.

"You invest as much as 30,000 shillings ($295) per acre but you end up getting little income, and when the next planting period comes, you don't have enough money to buy farm inputs like fertilisers and certified seeds," he said.

"Therefore, the only option is to get very cheap seeds in the market" - or plant some of what was harvested, Kuyoni said.

In an effort to make certified seeds more affordable, firms such as Kenya Seed Company sell them in packages as small as 5 kg, and try to ensure farmers don't need to travel further than 5 km to buy them, Cherop said.

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