Innovative and beneficial informal sweetpotato seed private enterprise in northern Uganda
Innovative and beneficial informal sweetpotato seed private enterprise in northern Uganda
Paul Rachkara 0 1 2
David Paul Phillips 0 1 2
Stephen Wamala Kalule 0 1 2
Richard William Gibson 0 1 2
Paul Rachkara 0 1 2
0 Department of Rural Development and Agribusiness, Gulu University , Gulu , Uganda
1 Stephen Wamala Kalule
2 Natural Resources Institute (NRI), University of Greenwich , London , UK
Research conducted in the informal sweetpotato seed (vines) supply system in the Gulu region, northern Uganda (2013-2015) revealed a diverse set of actors using private enterprise in a range of selling and marketing channels. The different channels offer an efficient and effective marketing system, providing different services and conveniences for farmers at different prices. The actors include local vine multipliers, traders, dry season root farmers, transporters and town sellers. The local multipliers and dry season root farmers grow crops during the dry season in swampy areas and sell the vines in the following rainy season to the many farmers who lack access to such areas and therefore lack vines to plant. The presentation and discussion of this case study adds to an expanding argument in the literature for increased attention to support actors in informal food crop sectors who are providing sustainable production and marketing systems on a platform of beneficial and innovative private enterprise. Through their commercial operations, vine multipliers and other actors can effectively meet the demand of customers and at the right time and place. With suitable dissemination Richard William Gibson programmes installed, these actors could also offer access to new varieties otherwise unavailable to the majority of farmers.
Seed systems; Private enterprise; Smallholder agriculture; Vine marketing
Agriculture is a critical sector for most developing
economies; commercial agriculture can drive economic
development, improvements in incomes and livelihoods, and boost
food security (IFAD 2003; DFID 2015). Seed systems
ensuring farmers can access good quality planting material at
the right time and of sufficient diversity are the foundation
of agriculture, and support higher production, nutrition and
resilient food system goals (McGuire and Sperling 2016).
To date most of the seed that is commercially available for
food crops in developing countries is that of cereals,
especially hybrid maize. Also, much of the literature on seed
systems is on those crops in which the seed is the botanical
seed (Abay et al. 2011; Bellon and Brush 1994; Louette
et al. 1997; Sperling and Berkowitz 1994; Tsehaye et al.
2006; Voss 1992) and emphasizes social relationships
(Almekinders et al. 1994; McGuire 2007) rather than
commerce. Most studies of seed systems of vegetatively
propagated crops have involved cassava and potato. For cassava,
they have mostly been anthropological (Boster 1986; Elias
et al. 2001; Salick et al. 1997; Sambatti et al. 2001). For
potato, a few have been anthropological (Brush 1992) but
most have involved the formal system or its
interrelationship with informal systems (Crissman et al. 1993;
Etwire et al. 2013; International Potato Center 2011). This
paper describes an informal sweetpotato seed system in
Uganda, telling how the few farmers who have sweetpotato
crops in lowlands during the dry season sold the vines
onfarm, at local markets or through intermediaries including
traders (middlemen) and sellers. It documents prices along
supply chains, how much was traded and when, where and
who purchased the vines. The paper focuses on enterprise
and is the first well-documented and quantified description
of an informal sweetpotato seed system in Africa.
In recent years there have been a number of publications
discussing the contributions and potential for improving the
distribution of good quality planting material to more end
users through supporting the informal sector, and how
stronger smallholder planting material enterprises can take new
varieties from the formal sector to distribute through their
networks (Neate and Guei 2010; McGuire and Sperling
2013; de Boef and Thijssen 2010; Louwaars and de Boef
2012, Samberg et al. 2013). This paper adds to the broad
literature by presenting diverse systems of production,
distribution and sale of planting material in the sweetpotato
informal sector which, through appropriate support, can positively
contribute to key objectives of food systems that include
efficiency, welfare, safety nets, and food security (Timmer 2015).
Previous sweetpotato seed projects, including those in
northern Uganda (Namanda et al. 2007; Odongo et al. 2007), have
largely ignored or been in ignorance of informal sweetpotato
seed systems and instead have created new systems involving
farmer field schools and/or decentralized vine multiplier
groups (Stathers et al. 2005, 2013) whose produce is typically
purchased by NGO or government contracts for free
distribution to farmers. Few of these have thrived for long after
projects have terminated (Gibson 2013). In contrast, our study,
focusing on Gulu District in northern Uganda, sought to
understand existing informal seed systems as a precursor to
developing them in an evolutionary way. The presentation and
discussion of this work demonstrates how seed entrepreneurs
and farmers can operate in sustainable seed systems based on
commerce compared to aid-based seed systems which depend
on the whims of donors and seem likely to be unreliable in the
Context and definitions
Uganda is the fourth largest producer of sweetpotato in the
world and second in East Africa with an estimated annual
production of 2.6 m metric tonnes of fresh storage roots
(henceforth simply called ‘roots’) from 550,000 ha
(FAOSTAT 2013). Uganda’s formal seed industry has recently
been transferred from public to private sector led (MAAIF
2014), in line with the enterprise spirit identified in this
manuscript. The unregulated informal sector is also being
considered for improvement, though a strategy for the introduction
of Quality Declared Seed as a source of seed designed for
farmers (Fajardo et al. 2010) has not yet been approved
Sweetpotato is widely grown for its roots which are used
for household food and small-scale trading. It is propagated
from vine cuttings and, in areas where a long dry season
destroys vines of the main crop, farmers are willing to pay for
vines as planting material (Anonymous 2009) and sales have
been reported (Gibson et al. 2009; Namanda et al. 2011)
though there is little detail of the type of farmer who is
prepared to pay. Northern Uganda contributes about 16% of the
national sweetpotato output, with Gulu District producing
62,000 MT, 21% of the region’s production (UBoS 2015).
Gibson (2013) described three main kinds of sweetpotato seed
systems operating in this region:
& A formal one dealing solely with released varieties, largely
limited to research stations and with limited capacity to
distribute them to farmers;
& A project-based (aid) one led by non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), distributing free planting material of
released varieties to smallholders;
& Informal ones characterized by lowland dry season
production of vines for sale.
They also differ in their function:
& The formal system breeds and releases orange-fleshed
(OFSP) and white-fleshed sweetpotato (WFSP) varieties;
& The aid seed system largely distributes OFSP varieties.
Their roots are a source of vitamin A, especially valuable
to nursing women and children (Kapinga et al. 2007; Low
et al. 2007; Mwanga and Ssemakula 2011);
& Informal systems almost exclusively distribute landraces
(Gibson 2013); most are white-fleshed (WF); some are
high yielding and have been released by the formal system
(Mwanga et al. 2001, 2009).
Formal seed systems in Uganda largely comprise research
institutes and extension services sustained by government
funding, sometimes using funds provided by international
donors, for example, The World Bank and The International
Fund for Agricultural Development funding the Ugandan
National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAADS) (accessed
27 September 2016). Aid seed systems are sustained by
projects; and informal systems by sales, barter and other forms of
exchange. The informal seed systems comprise mainly local
multipliers producing planting material for their own use and
increasingly to sell to other farmers, sometimes through other
At Gulu Town, roads leading east to Pader, north-east to
Kitgum, north-west to Adjumani and west to Arua intersect
the main road between Kampala and Juba, capitals and main
cities of respectively Uganda and South Sudan (Fig. 1). There
are frequent bus and minibus services to Kampala, Kitgum
and South Sudan. Gulu has a high annual rainfall (1.5 m)
and the main growing season is April–January, late planted
crops maturing on residual soil moisture. At nearly 30 north,
the long dry season lasts from December to mid-March. This
is too long for sweetpotato crops not to desiccate and most
farmers lack vines to plant at the start of the rainy season in
April. Instead, the few farmers with land in swampy areas
plant a crop there in December. The roots generated by this
crop (April–June) are valuable as few other fresh foodstuffs
are then available but the vines are now especially valuable
and they are sold as planting material to the many farmers who
lack access to swamps. This is the basis of the seed system.
During 2013, a few informal local multipliers and town
sellers (Fig. 2) in and around Gulu Town were traced,
initially through local knowledge and then, for 2014,
from these original multipliers and sellers. Each year at
the start of the selling season, these informal multipliers
and sellers filled in a questionnaire on their gender, age,
location and ownership of vine production areas,
methods of production, varieties grown and access to a
mobile phone. In 2013, 19 putative multipliers were
identified but 5 had no sales by late April and were
disregarded. In 2014, 56 multipliers were identified but
only 27 were monitored, largely because others had
either failed to plant in the dry season (it arrived unusually
early) or they were unwilling to be monitored. All
season-long sellers in Gulu Town were monitored, 7 in
2013 and 10 in 2014. Local multipliers and town sellers
were visited throughout the selling season (April to
August) and sales the previous week, the origin of each
customer, the variety and quantity sold, the selling point,
the type of buyer and the price were recorded, again
using a questionnaire. Multipliers and town sellers were
mostly illiterate and data were recorded by a team
member. For town sellers, both vine purchases and sales were
recorded. In 2013, sales and purchases were monitored
once a week; for town sellers in 2014, this was increased
to twice a week. The information on sales by town
sellers comprised the current home of each customer,
whether the buyer was a trader or farmer, quantity
purchased, variety, price and where the vines were to be
planted. The information on purchases by town sellers
comprised the location of production of the supplier,
whether the supplier was a multiplier or trader, the price
paid, and the quantity and varieties bought. Vines were
Fig. 2 Vine sellers (together with
our interviewer on extreme left) in
Gulu Town selling large bundles
recorded as bundles of 50 vine cuttings (Fig. 3), which
was the most commonly used unit both at the farm gate
and at the market; when a different quantity was used,
the equivalent in these bundles was recorded. The
information from the multipliers seems likely to be accurate –
multipliers usually sold at most once or twice a week
and could remember each sale easily; town sellers often
made many transactions each day and probably did not
remember them all even when monitored twice a week.
Sales and purchases by multipliers and sellers for each
year were transferred to Excel spreadsheets to enable
means, standard errors, scatter diagrams and lines giving
the best fit to be calculated. Although the local
multipliers and sellers interviewed were numbered only in the
tens, they were monitored weekly or twice weekly over
the selling period in both 2013 and 2014 and many
transactions were recorded so the data involved
thousands of records. Traders were very mobile, moving from
local multiplier to local multiplier and could not
therefore be monitored; information on them was gleaned
secondhand from local multipliers and sellers.
In addition, four and six farmers growing crops during the
dry season mainly for the sale of their roots but also selling
their vines cheaply to traders were interviewed once in 2013
and 2014, respectively. They were otherwise unstudied
because their vine sales were rare and erratic, more-or-less
‘accidental’, depending on traders or multipliers seeking their
vines. These so-called ‘dry season root farmers’ usually sold
vines of mature crops for a few thousand shillings to clear the
land so it was easy to harvest.
The Ugandan shilling (/−) is used throughout; in 2014, $1
(USA) was equivalent to approximately 2500/−.
Fig. 3 Photograph showing how
each large bundle sold by town
sellers is composed of 20 small
bundles of 50 vine cuttings. The
latter (inset on right) is the
standard bundle used throughout
Sweetpotato vine selling systems in Gulu – Actors
Two main categories of vine multipliers (Table 1) were
Multipliers with irrigation growing a relatively large area
(>0.5 ha) of mainly modern OFSP varieties primarily to
sell the vines to NGO projects (Table 1a), referred to as
Multipliers growing ≤0.3 ha of mainly landraces of WFSP
in swamps in the dry season and selling the vines to
smallscale local farmers (Table 1b-e), referred to as ‘local
The two NGO multipliers identified lived close together in
Koro sub-county, about 6 km from Gulu on a good though
unsealed road leading to Pader district (Fig. 1); they sold vines
mainly to NGO and local government projects (Fig. 1). The
larger one, a man, had >1 ha of dry season production and a
pump for water (Table 1). They both had phones which they
used for contacting buyers; they also sold to farmers,
especially larger-scale farmers and rarely to the town sellers. They
grew several varieties, mostly of the OFSP varieties
Ejumula, Kakamega, Vita (NASPOT 9) and Kabode
(NASPOT 10). They sold vines mainly in large woven plastic
sacks containing 800–1000 vines. The larger NGO multiplier
had formed an association with smaller multiplier neighbours
and occasionally included their vines in his sales to NGOs.
The local multipliers mainly used land in two swamps to
the north-east of Gulu Town (Fig. 1). Two, both men, had 0.2–
0.3 ha of dry season crops but most were women with ≤0.1 ha
of dry season crops (Table 1). They mostly grew the landrace
cv Ladwe Aryo, along with small amounts of cv Alero, Lalira
and/or Lasoroti. None sold to NGO projects or to traders; all
sold to local farmers (Table 1b-e) on farm and some sold in
town to town sellers or more rarely through local markets or
by the roadside (Table 1d). About half of them had a mobile
phone. Some supplemented their own sales with vines bought
from dry season root farmers (Table 1e). When sales were
onfarm, customers (farmers or traders) would often harvest, pack
and transport the vines. In contrast, for sales to town sellers or
in local markets, the local multipliers had to harvest the vines,
pack them in bundles and transport them to town, usually
paying a motorcyclist (boda-boda) to do this. The local
multipliers mainly sold individually, though some were closely
related and some aggregated their production of vines to
satisfy larger orders. None of the local multipliers solely
multiplied vines, they also grew sweetpotato for their roots and
grew other crops during the rainy season.
Both local and NGO multipliers maximized vine
production of their sweetpotato in the dry season in lowlands by
harvesting the vines several times. By contrast, dry season
root farmers grew crops primarily to sell their roots during
the off (dry)-season when these were also scarce. Some
multipliers shifted to being dry season root farmers and vice-versa
in different years, depending on the market, family
circumstances and other factors. There appeared to be no difference
in the way the crop was grown by the different multipliers;
they all planted in swamps on ridges or mounds around the
start of the dry season – differences were in the harvesting
schedule and customers.
There were three other actors engaged in the informal
Traders who bought vines mainly from dry season root
Town sellers who bought vines from multipliers and
traders to sell in town.
Transporters who transported vines from local multipliers
to town sellers, usually using motorbikes. The NGO
multipliers or projects used transporters with trucks to take
their vines to client farmers.
All the town sellers were women and they sold in an area of
road ~20 m wide close to the main market in Gulu Town (Figs
1 and 2). They acted mainly as individuals but also cooperated:
If a vine supplier for one seller brought more vines than
she individually needed, she shared the supply with the
others, especially if the other sellers had none to sell.
If a customer wanted to buy more vines than any one seller
could supply, they combined so that the customer gained
what s/he needed.
In paying rent jointly to the owner of the area.
In sharing a mobile phone (but each had their own SIM
In agreeing a single mobile number for a banner used to
advertise that vines were for sale because many numbers
would confuse buyers.
The vines sold by the town sellers were all about 40 cm
long and ready to be planted as a single cutting. These were
tied neatly together in a bundle of 50 vines; 20 of these small
bundles were tied together to make one large bundle (which
they were willing to break up) of 1000 cuttings (Fig. 3). Town
sellers all had another occupation during the off-season for
selling vines; most sold fruit and vegetables then in the main
market. Tying in neat bundles that customers could take away
easily – an aspect of selling vegetables – seemed an
innovation in the selling of vines developed specifically by Gulu
town sellers. The main variety sold was Ladwe Aryo, similar
to local multipliers.
Traders according to the local multipliers and town sellers
were mostly smallholders with little land who bought vines
from dry season root farmers. They seemed to sell vines
through local markets and the town sellers and could accept
the town sellers’ low purchase price (Table 3) because they
had bought the vines cheaply.
No transporters were interviewed. Transporting vines was
just a part of their everyday business. Multipliers told us the
motorcyclists usually charged 3000/− to 5000/− for a journey
and could transport 60–80 bundles at a time. Most were young
men with mobile phones. Multipliers often contacted them by
phone and used trusted individuals to both sell their vines to
town sellers and bring back the money.
Sales data for different multipliers
The two NGO multipliers sold large quantities of vines to
NGOs (Table 2); the numbers of sales were much fewer than
to farmers but their average size was >30× greater (Table 3);
they rarely sold to town sellers. Their annual sales volume of
vines increased about fivefold from 2013 to 2014 but their
value increased only twofold, reaching an equivalent of about
US$6000 for each multiplier, due to reductions in 2014 in the
price they obtained for the vines (Table 3). The average price,
number of bundles in each sale and value of each sale to
NGOs and, to a lesser extent, to farmers fluctuated
enormously (between 400/− and 1500/−per bundle) in 2013 as shown
by their high standard deviations, but had settled down by
2014 to 500/− to 650/− per bundle. This is nearly twice the
amount paid to local multipliers by town sellers; scatter
diagrams (not shown) also showed that prices for NGOs were not
reduced for either large (some single purchases were massive)
or late-season purchases.
All local multipliers sold on farm, some sold in local
markets or to town sellers but few sold to traders (Table 2). Some
also supplemented their own vine supplies by buying from dry
season root farmers. The prices paid to the local multipliers
varied with the type of customer and how and where they sold
them. The multipliers gained the best average price, around
500/− per bundle, selling in local markets (Table 3) but to
achieve this they had to harvest and transport the vines to
market, wait for customers and risk failing to sell. Selling
on-farm gained the next highest average price and allowed
the local multiplier to do other jobs on-farm instead of waiting
in the market. Interestingly, examination of scatter diagrams
(Fig. 4 a and b) revealed two main prices – one at 250–300/−
and another at 500/− and the multipliers told us that the price
of 250–300/− per bundle involved customers harvesting the
vines whereas the one priced at around 500/− per bundle
involved customers pre-arranging with the multiplier (mostly by
mobile phone) for the vines to be cut and packed ready to take
away. This latter price was thus similar to that gained in local
markets but avoided the costs of transporting the vines to
market or the risk of failing to sell.
Selling the vines to town sellers meant, for the local
multiplier, both accepting only 300/− per bundle and having to
harvest, pack and transport them to town. Nevertheless, local
multipliers sold larger quantities this way (Tables 2 & 3) and
presumably adjusted their prices for this benefit. Sales
onfarm declined from 2013 to 2014 whereas sales to town sellers
increased such that local multipliers who did not sell to the
town sellers suffered a decline in income whereas those who
sold to them increased theirs. The local multipliers who also
bought vines from dry season root farmers sold the most vines
to the town sellers, the value of their annual sales almost
doubling. The town sellers sold a bundle of vines for about
100/− more than the purchase price in 2013 but this mark-up
had almost doubled by 2014. There was little variation in the
number of bundles bought in individual transactions from
local multipliers by different channels.
Season of selling
Sales by local multipliers started in April and were mainly in
May–July; there was little difference in seasonality between
sales on-farm, in markets, to traders and to town sellers
(Table 4). This is about a month after the start of the rains
and it seems likely that the intervening time was used to plant
grain crops and for ploughing. There was little variation in
seasonal prices both on-farm and in town markets, suggesting
amounts available to buy were closely following the required
demand (Figs. 4 and 5). In 2013, there was an extended short
dry season in June, seriously disrupting planting and sales,
and the prices the town sellers received from customers
declined afterwards as the season progressed (Fig. 5a). No such
trend was evident in 2014 (data not shown). Interestingly,
smaller purchases also tended to cost less per bundle
(Fig. 5b). Sales to NGOs by NGO multipliers were infrequent
and tended to occur later in the season than to other customers.
The sales of vines to farmers by local multipliers were mostly to
customers within a 10 km radius (Table 5). Interestingly, sales
by town sellers had two peaks; one at 0–5 km away for local
customers but another between 20 and 200 km away. Many of
the latter were to Kitgum and Pader but they occurred in almost
every direction including to South Sudan (Fig. 6). Sales to
NGOs were commonly to customers located 10–100 km away.
This description of the informal sweetpotato vine selling
system in Gulu District and Town is the first detailed description
Table 3 The average price, number of bundles sold and the value of individual transactions by multipliers, traders and town sellers. Means are ±
Total no. of observations
*Supplier of information
of its kind in Africa. It provides details of the actors, the selling
and buying prices, what is mainly bought, and how and when
it is bought, and also of the magnitude and extent of the
informal selling system. This description indicates that the informal
selling system is providing a vital service to the local
smallholders, supplying amounts of planting material which are
affordable and probably convenient to them, being able both
to buy in a central market and locally on-farm. It was also clear
that Gulu was providing this service to many smallholders
outside Gulu District, planting material from Gulu often
reaching smallholders >100 km away and even in South
Sudan. Data were not collected on whether price limited the
quantities of vines bought and whether their amounts and
quality were adequate or of the varieties required (all were
landraces). Nonetheless, most purchases by farmers (but
not by NGOs) were of around 30 bundles regardless of
the price varying with the channel used, based perhaps
largely on the amount that could be transported easily
by head or on a pedal bicycle. This also was enough to
plant ~0.1 ha; expanding this fourfold by using cuttings
from the initial planting would generate an adequate
harvest over much of the year for most households. A
description of the sales of the two NGO multipliers
identified in the district was necessarily more restricted but
included similar data.
Prices along the informal seed channels in Gulu were
largely consistent with costs, supply and demand (Fig. 7). The
cheapest option for farmers was to cut and buy vines on a
multiplier’s farm. The vines were most expensive when
harvested, packed and sold by vine multipliers in local markets or
similarly pre-ordered ready to take away from a multiplier’s
farm. Town sellers were slightly cheaper, this may seem
unexpected but the sellers bought and sold many vines, used
their purchasing power to buy cheaply and to require their
suppliers to cut and transport the vines to them, and also
competed amongst themselves. The dry season root farmers were
the cheapest source of vines of all; for them clearing the land
prior to harvest was a benefit of selling the vines. Farmers
couldn’t easily buy these though, as they had to be harvested
at a time mainly of the dry season farmer’s choice so they were
bought by traders or multiplier/aggregators to sell on. There
were a few recorded accounts inconsistent with these
experiences, but overall these private enterprise seed systems
seemed to be examples of efficient and well-functioning
marketing and trade that minimized transaction costs.
In contrast to the informal system, sales of OFSP vines by
NGO multipliers often appeared to suspend normal economic
behavior, suggesting a lack of information amongst at least
some participants (Jagwe et al. 2010; Shepherd 1997). The
NGOs bought the biggest quantities of vines, so should pay
Fig. 4 Sales of vines of landraces
(Date × Price) by local multipliers
on farm. The dotted ellipses
enclose areas in which a large
number of observations lie
the least yet they paid the most and even massive orders were
seldom at a discount. Other purchasers who bought large
quantities of vines were town sellers; NGOs paid multipliers
about twice the price (500–900/− per bundle) they did (300/−)
and, unlike them, bought on-farm so the NGO multipliers had
no transport costs. The OFSP varieties bought by NGOs
shouldn’t cost more to produce than WFSP; their orange flesh
seems at most only partially to explain their greater price. Aid
seed systems for most crops have largely been phased out in
northern Uganda (Joughin 2014) now the Lord’s Resistance
Army’s activities have ceased yet the aid seed system there for
OFSP vines has not and has even increased in neighbouring
South Sudan, based largely on vines produced in Uganda. Half
a large bag (equivalent to 10–15 small bundles) of vines is
usually given to each of thousands of smallholders by NGO
projects (Gibson 2013). Such large gifts disrupt private
enterprise, destroying multipliers’ and others’ livelihoods. This surely
goes against donors’ philosophy, suggesting that a dialogue
between the NGOs, multipliers and donors is required and that
NGO projects should instead use and promote the informal local
multipliers, traders, and town sellers.
Seed systems can be divided into formal ones controlled
by public regulations, and informal ones with no legal
controls (Fig. 8), but often governed by ‘informal’ regulations
such as the need to maintain a good reputation – which can
be powerful. They can also be divided by ownership into the
aid, public and private sectors, the private sector including
both large (formal) commercial seed companies and
informal systems. Seed systems are increasingly receiving
attention in relation to resilience, especially around linking
formal and informal sectors, with presumed overall
improvements in seed systems (Louwaars and de Boef 2012). The
way forward for resilience lies with informal systems
(McGuire and Sperling 2013) upon which the majority of
Total annual sales
Table 4 The percentage of sales
of small bundles of vines by
different multipliers in each
month during the selling period
farmers rely for their seed. To achieve this challenge,
different actors need to undergo some capacity development:
Traders/ sellers need to
increase their knowledge of the seed they sell, especially
of its origin, age, certified standards etc., using
competition based on advertizing the benefits these will bring to
their customers as a way of driving up quality;
be more dynamic in accessing new varieties and
competing on this too;
Farmers need to utilize new and better ways of gaining
information about seed, for example, through mobile
phone usage and contacting new (for them) sources of
information such as research stations and researchers.
The benefits of integrating seed systems (Louwaars and
de Boef 2012) have recently gained prominence, with
programs present in several African countries. An integrated
approach merges the benefits of the formal sector, for
example, modern varieties and the ability to disseminate
certified quality seed nationally, with the strengths of
informal ones that tend to contain the following features
(Sperling et al. 2013):
(1) Are market-driven.
(2) Already work at scale.
(3) Rarely break down entirely.
(4) Are highly dynamic.
(5) Work everywhere and for everyone.
Aid systems generally lack all of these above features;
instead they tend to work at scale only through
expensivelycreated free handouts that are not sustained once project
funding ends. A formal system is generally resilient through
being sustained by taxes but it tends not to work at scale and
fails to distribute planting material widely. Large-scale
commercial systems are market driven, do work at scale and are
highly dynamic; however, larger commercial companies
require large profits and may not supply smallholders because
the market is too small (FAO 2011). Like commercial systems,
the informal ones are largely market driven (Table 3), work at
scale (Fig. 6), and are likely to be resilient (Fig. 8) through
containing large numbers of individuals working to maintain
(b) Size of purchase x price
Fig. 5 Sales of vines of landraces
in 2013 by town sellers. The lines
are the ‘best fit’ straight line for
the data points
(a) Selling price x date
their separate livelihoods and several channels through which
vines are sold (Fig. 7) (McGuire 2007; McGuire and Sperling
2013; Sperling and McGuire 2012). Long distance trading
(Fig. 6) in informal systems also has demonstrated dynamism
Source of vines
Location of sales
Distance to customer’s home (km)
Total number of:
On farm (to farmers)
On farm (to NGOs)
Roadside + local markets
Fig. 6 A map showing the districts other than Gulu District to which the town sellers sold vines. The relative amount sold is roughly indicated by the
thickness of each arrow
in setting up. Farmers have been reported previously to be
prepared to pay for sweetpotato vines (Anonymous 2009;
Gibson et al. 2009, Namanda et al. 2011). Sweetpotato is
somewhat unusual both in that it is propagated vegetatively, by
relatively delicate vines, rather than by seed but also that these
vines are mostly destroyed during the dry season. This ensures
that only the few farmers who possess access to land close to
swamps or rivers can grow them then, giving them both a
monopoly and an annual market, from which this cash-based
system derives. We identified that local multipliers were selling
about 30 small bundles (a total of about 1500 cuttings) (Table 3)
to smallholders who were mostly their neighbours (Table 5) and
the town sellers were mostly selling about 20 small bundles (so
again the customers were mostly likely to have been
smallholders), often locally but sometimes in neighbouring districts.
Informal sweetpotato seed systems work for smallholders: they
cannot easily supply larger farms because their scale is too small
– but this is also the private sector opportunity for current NGO
multipliers. Different scales of private enterprise serve different
purposes, informal systems distribute planting material to
smallholders and larger multipliers and commercial companies to
larger farmers; only together can they claim to ‘Work
everywhere and for everyone’.
The informal sector is often seen as and called a farmer seed
system (reviewed: Coomes et al. 2015), with farmers producing
planting material for their own use and to exchange with or sell
to other farmers (Abay et al. 2011; Almekinders et al. 1994;
Samberg et al. 2013). Such farmer seed systems (Aw-Hassan
et al. 2008; Sperling and McGuire 2010; Witcombe et al. 2010;
Takoutsing et al. 2012; Tin et al. 2011) and farmer seed
businesses (de Boef and Thijssen 2010; Louwaars and de Boef
2012; Neate and Guei 2010) have often been promoted to
improve the distribution of planting material. Our study of the
sweetpotato seed systems in northern Uganda has not revealed
a specifically farmer seed system, but instead a more diverse
system comprised of specialist multipliers (some acting also as
aggregators), traders, transporters and sellers (Fig. 8). As well
as the town sellers detailed here, sellers have also been observed
both within and at strategic junctions of trunk roads outside
Arua Town (Gibson 2013). Some of these actors had not
evolved from farmers; most town sellers dwelt there and had
market stalls at which they sold fruit and vegetables off-season.
Fig. 7 Diagram of sales channels
in Gulu town and district, with
approximate amounts delivered
indicated by the thickness of the
arrow. The numbers in the
Bcircles^ are the average price at
that point of sale for 2013 and
2014 in Ugandan shillings
The sellers and local multipliers associated with them were also
the most dynamic component, increasing their size of operation
and connecting to farmers ≥100 km away. Despite often being
portrayed as negative actors taking value away from farmers,
sellers also seemed the most innovative, the neat, easily carried
bundles of vine cuttings precut to planting length characteristic
of Gulu not seen elsewhere in Uganda. Most aspects of the
thriving informal sweetpotato seed system in Gulu also
involved people acting as individuals; in contrast, cooperative
seed ventures created by NGOs from farmers often failed
(Gibson 2013). Early concepts of improving seed supplies
supported informal systems in their entirety, often specifically
mentioning traders and sellers (Bentley and Vasques 1998; Thiele
1999), yet farmer businesses (de Boef and Thijssen 2010;
Louwaars and de Boef 2012; Neate and Guei 2010) eliminate
these actors and perhaps along with them eliminate that vital
spark, the spirit of private enterprise. Resilience, dynamism and
sustainability are all the direct result of the private enterprise of
Fig. 8 A diagram showing the
relationship between resilience
and sustainability in different seed
individuals seeking out different market opportunities, and
consumer demand for a diversity of purchasing opportunities; at
least in Uganda, the public sector has failed to provide effective
seed production (MAAIF 2014). Indeed, setting up seed
businesses as cooperatives and insisting on farmers/smallholders
being the driving force may in fact be creating exactly the
cul-de-sac Almekinders and Thiele (2003) suspect exists in
farmer-led seed systems. In this regard, it also seems
appropriate to emphasize that the complex and cash-based trading
system presented in this paper has developed in a largely
subsistence crop. Whilst commercialization of a crop may be
beneficial for a seed system to develop, it is clearly not essential.
This work adds to evidence of how informal systems reach
greater numbers of more geographically remote farmers, more
sustainably through selling valued material compared with not
valued material that is distributed for free through government
and NGO programmes. Furthermore this significantly
contributes to nutritional well-being of more remotely located
families often not reached through formal systems that ‘generally
fail to serve the majority of farmers’ (McGuire and Sperling
2013: 651). The informal sector can effectively improve
availability and access to larger quantities and a more diverse range
of varieties of planting material on a more sustainable basis to
a larger number of end users. So-called ‘middlemen’ are often
portrayed as negative actors taking value away from farmers.
However, the presence of effective and efficient traders and
sellers can contribute strongly to food security, nutrition and
welfare aims by connecting often distant farmers and end
users. There is, therefore, a need to focus more supportive
seed sector interventions towards those systems that reach
more farmers on a more sustainable basis, shifting the balance
to the informal and away from the formal and NGO-based
seed systems (McGuire and Sperling 2016).
There has been considerable interest over the last few
decades in using informal seed systems to disseminate
formallybred varieties (Almekinders et al. 1994; Almekinders and
Louwaar 2008; Thiele 1999) including sweetpotato (Gibson
2013). It has been used successfully by components of our
project in Tanzania (Lukonge et al. 2015) and north-western
Uganda (Obong et al. 2017). It is a cost effective way by which
modern varieties (including OFSP) can be spread in developing
country conditions, especially now it is known that informal
systems regularly distributed seed over ≥100 km radius.
Remaining challenges are that quality of planting material needs
to be maintained and project funding is still needed to distribute
small quantities of the new varieties to local multipliers to start
the process. A protocol for Quality Declared Seed including
sweetpotato has been prepared by FAO (Fajardo et al. 2010)
and may provide an effective strategy for informal production
of sweetpotato seed. The solution to the dissemination of new
varieties could consist of a combination of rewarding national
plant breeders on adoption of a variety, as in the private sector,
rather than on release (Ceccarelli 2015) and having national
variety trials widely dispersed on local nodal multipliers’ farms
(Abay et al. 2011; Obong et al. 2017) from which the other local
multipliers get access to the new varieties (Gibson 2013).
Now we understand more-or-less the current informal seed
system, we continue to research factors influencing the choice
of distribution channels, the use of mobile phones, and
facilitating meetings between local multipliers, NGO multipliers
and town sellers to explain the outcomes to date of the study
and to facilitate information exchange. It is hoped that these
will provide impetus for further rapid improvements and
innovations to the vine supply chains.
Acknowledgements We thank the many farmers and other actors in the
seed supply chain for assisting us so generously.
Compliance with ethical standards
Funding This work was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation under Grant OPP1080975.
Conflict of interest The authors declared there were no conflicts of
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative
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Paul Rachkara recently attained
a Master of Science degree in
from Gulu University, in Gulu
Uganda where he lives. He holds
a Bachelor of Science degree in
Quantitative Economics from
Makerere University in Kampala,
Dr. David Phillips work focuses
on business development of
smallholder farmers, SMEs, and
mar ket s i n food cr ops (e .g.
sweetpotato, cassava, yams).
David conducts research and
consultancy to contribute to the
development of agriculture and food
SMEs in low income countries by
supporting the establishment and
growth of sustainable smallholder
farmer and producer enterprises.
This involves mapping and
developing business processes, value
chains, and business plans, as well
as identifying opportunities for upgrading old technology and adoption of
new. Current work includes assessment and development of agriculture
business development opportunities in food sectors in East and West
Richard William Gibson is a
Plant Pathologist. He has both a
B S c a n d P h D f r o m B r i s t o l
University in the UK and is based
at the Natural Resources Institute
of the University of Greenwich.
Richard's main interest is
development of sustainable means of
controlling plant viruses, mainly
through plant breeding. He has
worked mainly with root crops
and has also been associated with
breeding new resistant varieties of
sweetpotato, cassava and potato,
mainly through participatory
plant breeding. He has worked in Africa since 1990 including 3 years
based at NaCRRI in Uganda.
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