Famers in Sokoine, Tanzania, examine a drought tolerant maize variety developed by the nationally-owned seed company Tanseed International Limited. Photo: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center via Flickr.
Big Biotech's African seed takeover
13th October 2014
Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Limagrain are among the companies to buy into Africa's indigenous seed companies. It's all part of the corporate takeover of the continent's agriculture at the expense of the small farmers who feed most of Africa's people.
The Green Revolution push equates agrarian transformation in Africa with the adoption of commercial certified seed and other expensive inputs such as fertilizer.
French seed giant Groupe Limagrain, the largest seed and plant breeding company in the European Union, has invested up to US$60 million for a 28% stake in SeedCo, one of Africa's largest home-grown seed companies.
In another transaction, SeedCo has agreed to sell 49% of its shares in Africa's only cottonseed company, Quton, to Mahyco of India - which is 26% owned by Monsanto.
Mahyco specialises in hybrid cotton varieties, and has a 50:50 joint venture with Monsanto to license its genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton throughout India.
By contrast Quton produces unpatented , non-GMO 'open-pollinated varieties' (OPVs) of cottonseed.
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) is "deeply concerned" about the Seedco acquisition and released a statement denouncing the industrialisation of the continent's farming sector:
"Attracting foreign investment from the world's largest seed companies, most of who got to their current dominant positions by devouring national seed companies and their competitors through mergers and acquisitions, is an inevitable consequence of the fierce drive to commercialise agriculture in Africa."
SeedCo, like so many other seed companies around the world, began life as a farmer-led and owned organisation to improve the availability of quality maize seed in 1940.
Today it describes itself as Africa's largest seed company, operating in 15 countries across the continent and has significant market shares in Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
SeedCo also has access to government and donor-funded input subsidy programmes in Zambia and Malawi and has set its sights on potentially lucrative markets in Nigeria and Ghana.
In July 2014, SeedCo and Limagrain began discussions with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) for a collaborative research project on maize lethal necrosis in Africa.
"From the outside this appears to be another case of scarce African agricultural budgets being used to subsidise the multinational seed industry", commented AFSA.
Big biotech taking key stakes in African seed market
These acquisitions follow close on the heels of Swiss biotech giant Syngenta's take-over in 2013 of Zambian seed company MRI Seed, whose maize germplasm collection was said at the time to be amongst Africa's most comprehensive and diverse.
Taken together, this means that three of the world's largest biotechnology companies, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, all now have a significant foothold on the continent in markets for two of the three major global GM crop varieties: maize and cotton.
According to AFSA, the creation of a corporate seed industry in Africa is "a vital component of the Green Revolution push, which equates agrarian transformation in Africa with the adoption of commercial certified seed and other expensive inputs such as fertilizer."
AFSA names the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as a key player in the process. It says AGRA "claims to collaborate with 80 small and medium sized seed companies across Africa and has also organised public-private-partnerships between seed companies and public research institutions."
But it adds: "How many of these newly established entities will remain independent of global seed industry players remains to be seen."
South Africa - corporate seed dominance is near complete
Multinational capture of local seed companies is a process that has long been under way in South Africa, a country much further down the Green Revolution path than any other in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 1999 and 2000 Monsanto purchased two of the country's largest seed companies, Carnia and Sensako, and the Missouri based company now enjoys a dominant position in South Africa's commercial seed market.
In 2012 the largest domestic seed company, Pannar Seed, was taken-over by US firm Pioneer Hi-Bred, itself a subsidiary of the DuPont chemical company. The purchase not only gave Pioneer access to Pannar's vast maize germplasm collection and agro-dealer network in South Africa, but also the company's long established presence in 23 other countries across the continent.
Even the smaller South African companies are now seen as fair game, with Link Seed being taken over in 2013 - also by Limagrain.
AFSA argues that solutions to Africa's agricultural challenges can be found in the collaboration between its small-scale farmers and public researchers, with the former taking the lead in setting the research agendas and objectives:
"A key part of public investments in R&D and extension should include identifying, prioritising and supporting work around participatory plant breeding, participatory variety selection, farmer-managed seed certification and quality assurance systems, identifying and supporting the development of locally important crops on the basis of decentralised participatory R&D, and farmer to farmer exchanges.
"The encroachment of the international seed industry, which focuses almost exclusively on genetically uniform varieties, subject to UPOV 1991 style intellectual property protection, takes us further away from this agricultural vision and closer to neo-colonialism of Africa's food systems."
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