Uganda's Bad Seeds

East Africans go hungry because they can't trust their markets


The National Seed Testing Laboratory is about eight miles north of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where the sprawl of the city starts to give way to fields of cassava, corn, and bananas. Inside, a strong, yeasty smell pervades the air. It's a Wednesday morning, but no one seems to be here: I pass one empty office after another on my way to meet the director, Divine Nakkede.

Nakkede is proud to describe the work her Ministry of Agriculture lab does testing the quality of the seeds used by Uganda's farmers. But as she sings her institution's praises, I keep wondering: Who exactly is doing all this crucial work? When I ask how many people the lab employs, she talks about budget challenges and hiring plans. When I press her, she casts her eyes down.

"We have only one technician," she says. Today that technician is not in.

With every last bit of fertile land spoken for, Uganda's only path out of mass hunger is intensification—getting more food out of the same amount of ground. Back in the 1960s and '70s, high-yield varieties of wheat and rice revolutionized agriculture in Asia and Latin America, freeing up to a billion people from chronic hunger. But the Green Revolution skipped Africa. I had come to Uganda to try to figure out why.

Nakkede's laboratory gives me my first clue. Ensuring that farmers have access to good seed should be at the forefront of Uganda's fight against hunger, and a sample of each lot of agricultural seed produced in the country is supposed to be tested here. But the lab barely functions at all.

Is insufficient funding the problem? Not quite. Expensive-looking machinery is all around us. Yet none of it, I slowly realize, is plugged into the wall.

"Oh, yeah," an aid official tells me days later. "All the equipment at the Kawanda lab is fried."

Between 2003 and 2008, a $1.9 million project by the Danish International Development Agency fully equipped this lab and trained staff to work here. But blackouts are frequent in Uganda. When the power comes back it often returns with a surge, and the Danes apparently forgot to put surge protectors in the budget. As a result, Danish taxpayers have paid top dollar for a collection of finely engineered paperweights.

The Danes were just one of a string of donors to come in, commission an assessment of Uganda's food security problems, zero in on seed quality, and spend a lot of money on "technical assistance," only to see virtually no bang for the development buck. Writing for the World Bank, the agricultural economist James Joughin reviewed 20 substantive studies of the Ugandan seed industry conducted between 2003 and 2013. Everybody who is anybody in African development has done one: the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the African Development Bank, the European Union, the United Nations, and various NGOs and academics.

"The reports invariably recommend how to repair these problems," Joughin concludes. "Rarely do they ask why earlier recommendations have not been acted upon."

A Market Flooded With Bad Seed The village of Buwenge is a couple of hours' drive from Kampala. The road is paved, and roadside stands sell cold drinks and mobile phone airtime; goats munch on whatever's around.

At the Buwenge Modern Farmers' Sacca (a Ugandized rendering of circle), a group of small farmers tell me how trouble obtaining decent seed has blighted their community.

Dandel Byansi is a big, soft-spoken 19-year-old. His family sacrificed for years to afford secondary-school tuition—a major hardship for small farmers here—and he'd done well in his classes, eventually earning a place at a nearby agricultural training institute. He was hoping to become just the kind of well-educated, technically astute "modern farmer" constantly invoked in the aid agency reports. But then things went terribly wrong at home.

Expensive-looking machinery is all around us. Yet none of it, I slowly realize, is plugged into the wall.

In early 2015, Dandel's father spent a good portion of the family's meager savings on a batch of high-yield soybean seeds—part of a long-term plan to move away from subsistence farming and into cash crops. The soybean market was hot, and Dandel's father calculated that if he could raise yields through diligent weeding, fertilizer use, and high-quality seed, he could get a big enough harvest to afford Dandel's university fees.

But only about 20 percent of the seed germinated. They had wasted their money on junk. Dandel's hopes were dashed.

There was no way to pinpoint the exact source of the problem. Was this seed that had once been good but was improperly stored? (Seed is a living thing—store it in too much heat or too much humidity, and you can kill it.) Was it actual fraud—regular commodity soybeans that some unscrupulous trader had tried to pass off as seed? Had it expired? Or had the Byansi family made some sort of mistake in planting it?

It's impossible to tell. A culture of blame-shifting is deeply entrenched in the seed sector. Complain to the village seed dealer and he'll blame his distributor. Ask the distributor and he'll blame the company. Ask the company and it'll blame the National Agricultural Research Organization that supplied the foundation seed. Ask the people there, and they'll blame the regulators and the seed lab at Kawanda. The buck stops nowhere.

Stories like this are distressingly common in East Africa. Uganda's better seed companies are mired in a cat-and-mouse game with the fakers. About 10 years ago they began branding the bags that hold their seed to differentiate themselves, but then traders started buying up the empty bags and selling them to scammers to refill with commodity grain passed off as seed. The companies tried dyeing their seed in bright colors to make them visibly different from bulk grain, but the scammers quickly figured out how to dye the fakes too.

The legal system offers little recourse—the fees to bring a suit could easily amount to the Byansis' lifetime earnings. And the police aren't much help, either: In 2015, only a single seed faker was prosecuted in all of Uganda. He had made just about every mistake imaginable, paying a sidewalk print shop in the town of Jinja to reproduce seed company bags half a block from a police station, in plain view of everyone. After a summary trial, he was sentenced to two weeks' community service, picking up garbage from the side of the road. But that's the exception. If you're minimally sophisticated (this guy wasn't) and take rudimentary precautions (this guy didn't), you won't get caught.

For his part, Dandel Byansi is still working his dad's farm, spending long, sweaty afternoons weeding fields by hand. In their small, earth-brick home at night, he looks through Facebook on his simple Chinese smartphone to keep up with his school friends who are now at college.

Yet poor as they are, the Byansis know they're relatively privileged. They can afford to have smartphones, plans, dreams. When they're taken in by bad seed, they count the costs in semesters of education missed, not meals forgone. Millions of other Ugandans aren't so lucky.

Never Starving, Always Hungry Just outside the town of Mbale, some 250 kilometers east of Kampala, I talk with members of the Bungokho Modern Farmers' Association, a local self-help group. I meet Christine Masawi, who is much more typical of Uganda's farmers than Dandel and his family. She relies on a garden less than an acre in size for her food. It would never occur to her to do something as grand as buying a bag of industrial seed. Money's far too tight for that, and commercial seed is far too risky.

The little contact she's had with the formal seed sector comes around election time, when soldiers turn up in her village to give away freebies as they work to rustle up votes for the ruling party. Last year they gave out corn seed, but most of it didn't germinate. Realizing it wasn't worth the trouble to sow, Masawi ended up holding a couple kilos of it. It's dusted with strangely colored chemicals—most likely fungicides applied to keep it from molding. But food is scarce around the homestead, and the non-germinating seed sure looks edible. She asks me if it would be safe to clean off the chemicals and cook it up for dinner. I have no idea what to tell her.

Such experiences explain why Masawi doesn't bother buying seed. Instead, she does what 95 percent of Ugandan farmers do: She saves part of her harvest each season to plant the following season. She might trade a bit of it informally with her neighbors, but in general what she plants hasn't travelled more than a couple of kilometers. This is the way the vast majority of East Africans source their seed, and it is a major reason they're often hungry but seldom starve.

They're hungry because saved seed sucks. Haphazardly selected from fields, its production potential is far lower than that of modern hybrid seed. Planted again and again on fields that are overexploited and starved of nutrients, the yields not only are low but tend to decline over time.

But while saved seed won't give you a great harvest, it's rare for it to fail to germinate at all. You know where it came from, since you probably gathered it yourself, and you know what you can expect from it. Those who live on the edge of subsistence can't afford to take risks. And saved seed is a lot of things, but risky isn't one of them.

This is the key to why there has been no Green Revolution in East Africa. To farmers here, high-yield seed looks less like an investment and more like a dangerous bet. Shelling out for a bag of commercial seed is buying the world's most expensive lottery ticket: Without proper testing and certification, you have no idea whether it will even germinate.

As a result, the formal seed market is tiny, covering just 5–10 percent of the country's acreage. Because it's so small, big seed multinationals have minimal incentive to bother with it. The Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta doesn't work here; neither does Dow AgroSciences. Monsanto used to do business in Uganda but it left in 2014, unable to make a buck. What's left are mom-and-pop seed companies—often spun off from yesteryear's aid projects—that don't have the capital to fight the fakers.

The one thing worse than being exploited by Monsanto, it turns out, is not being exploited by Monsanto.

It sounds like an argument for stronger regulation. But a dissonant note keeps going off in my mind. All that fried lab equipment; all that Danish money. What if the problem isn't too little intervention from the Ugandan government, but too much from the aid agencies?

A Finely Honed Machine The theme keeps coming up, but seldom during the day. It's the kind of thing aid workers talk about after hours, at the bar. I hear it most forcefully from Tim, a no-nonsense German technocrat temporarily assigned to the Central Bank of Uganda. This isn't his first job in Africa.

"No donor ever shuts down here," he says. "New ones come, but the old ones never leave, so they just build on top of each other in layers. It's like an aid lasagna out here."

Dandel Byansi. Photo by Wilfred Sanya.

It's true. In the nicer parts of Kampala, every third building hosts one aid organization or another. There's USAID and a gaggle of USAID contractors. There's GIZ, Germany's official aid body. The Danes have scaled back, but the Dutch have picked up much of the slack. There's the whole baffling alphabet soup of United Nations–related bodies: UNDP, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, FAO, CGIAR, IFPRI, half a dozen others. And there's a virtual infinity of private charities in every imaginable field, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to—I'm not making this up—Homeopaths Without Borders.

It's easy to see why. Kampala is quite a nice place for an expat to live. The streets are safe, the weather's nice, the nightlife is surprisingly lively, malaria is rare, and Ugandans are super polite. You can live extremely comfortably here on a salary that would qualify you for food stamps back home.

The agencies are permanent, but most of the people who staff them enter and exit quickly. The usual time horizon is two or three years, Tim says. After that, it's off to another African capital or a stint at headquarters.

But their counterparts, the officials at the ministries? They're here to stay. They've seen any number of white guys come and go, and they know this batch will leave soon, too.

The one option a foreign aid administrator doesn't have is to not spend his money. It is a truth universally acknowledged that unspent budgets get clawed back in the following year's review. For an aid official with a two- or three-year window to get some results, the prime directive is simple: Whatever you do, spend that budget.

"Local officials understand that," Tim tells me, "and they're not even a little bit shy about exploiting it."

Uganda's Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry & Fisheries (MAAIF) is notorious for this. Over the years, its labyrinthine bureaucracy seems to have given up entirely on its founding goal of assisting Uganda's farmers, morphing instead into a finely honed machine for separating aid donors from their budgets.

"When you go into a meeting with MAAIF officials, you feel the farmers are very far from view," says an official attached to a Dutch aid project, who requested not to be named because her job brings her into constant contact with ministry officials.

A key element of this is the infamous "per diem" culture—the practice of paying a small sum to Ugandan officials to attend events sponsored by foreign partners.

"Say you go to the ministry and propose a capacity building workshop—you can be sure the first question they'll ask is about the per diem," the Dutch official says. The actual subject of the workshop is secondary, and its "goals" hardly merit a mention.

I attend one such event sponsored by the World Bank. It's held in grand style at the Lake Victoria Serena Golf Resort and Spa, a luxury hotel with expansive views of the lake at the source of the Nile. Officials from four continents arrive to discuss institutional development. Many a fine word is spoken, and many a team-building exercise is led by young D.C.-based staffers.

MAAIF officials make sure their presentations include all the latest development catchphrases: multi-stakeholder platform and sustainable intensification and evidence-based monitoring and evaluation. To extract money from the international development machine, you need to sound just like it. At this task, if at no other, MAAIF excels.

On the ride back to my ramshackle Kampala Airbnb, I struggle to make sense of what I've just witnessed. The same bureaucracy that can't keep its lab equipment hooked up to a surge protector glides effortlessly among the leading lights of the development world.

Lant Pritchett, a professor of international development at Harvard, calls this "isomorphic mimicry," a phrase he borrowed from evolutionary biology. Think of the nonvenomous scarlet kingsnake, which has evolved to look uncannily like the highly venomous eastern coral snake. It borrows the deterrent effect of appearing venomous, he notes, without going to all the trouble to evolve venom. And it works: Animals won't risk attacking an eastern coral snake, so they leave the scarlet king alone. There can be a clear evolutionary payoff to appearing to be something you're not.

Pritchett posits that the governmental institutions in many developing countries do something similar: They evolve to mimic the trappings of a properly functioning bureaucracy, without investing scarce resources in the bothersome task of actually doing their jobs. To get resources out of international donors, such institutions have many incentives to look like agents of development but very few incentives to act like them.

Uganda's problem isn't a badly performing ministry of agriculture. It's a ministry of agriculture that performs extremely well at the wrong thing.

Sidestepping the State Is this a reason to throw in the towel on development assistance? Almost, but not quite. One promising aid project has figured out an alternative to throwing money at MAAIF: gently guiding the agency to the sidelines and letting private contractors do the work.

The project is sponsored by USAID and run by Tetra Tech, one of the agency's contractors. It upends the usual way international aid is carried out. Instead of hoping against hope that this time MAAIF really will change, it'll sidestep the Ugandan authorities using a techno-utopian sleight of hand.

Under the eVerification system, a lottery-style scratchcard will be attached to every bag of certified seed in Uganda. Once purchased, the buyer can scratch it off to reveal a code. Send that code via text message to a central database, and an instant response will confirm that, yes, that bag of seed has indeed been inspected and can be relied on to produce the advertised results.

The techno-novelty, while neat, is actually a clever bit of misdirection. More important is that USAID has managed to keep the entire eVerification certification protocol outside of MAAIF's purview. (The ministry takes what is euphemistically called "an oversight role.") The program is, in effect, a quasi-privatization of the process: It may be funded by U.S. taxpayers (with some money also coming from participating seed companies), but the testing and certification system is carried out by private entities.

Private sector-led seed regulation is already in place in South Africa and Zambia. The system has made the latter country, which is just as poor as Uganda, home to a competitive seed industry with hundreds of new varieties tested, certified, and planted each year. A tougher place to farm (having a single growing season each year vs. Uganda's two), Zambia even exports 16,000 tons of corn seed annually. Why?

Because larger firms have the confidence to invest there: They trust that their intellectual property won't get ripped off by fakers.

The need to get quality seed to East Africa's farmers will only grow more intense in the years to come, but outside of the context of rule of law and property rights, markets can go into the kind of death spiral that has robbed Dandel Byansi of his education and Christine Masawi of her dinner. What the Zambians know, and the Ugandans will need to learn, is that sometimes the road to effective regulation goes not through the state, but around it.

Reporting on this story from Uganda happened in 2014-15 and was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.