Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)

Agricultural input vouchers in Southern Africa: Synthesis of research findings from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia
Catherine Longley, with Richard Kachule, Mathews Madola, Inácio Maposse, Bruno Araujo, Thomson Kalinda and Hargreaves Sikwibele

Executive summary

This paper synthesises the findings of research undertaken in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia on the different ways in which relief seed and seed vouchers are programmed, and seeks to identify how such interventions can potentially best benefit both farmers and commercial seed markets. However, the review of the seed interventions in the three case study countries reveals that it is difficult to distinguish relief interventions from the supply of subsidized inputs or social protection and longer-term developmental interventions. This blurring of relief and developmental objectives is due to chronic vulnerability and recurrent drought in the region.

Two main programming mechanisms are used in providing seed and other inputs to vulnerable farmers: direct seed distribution and voucher-based programming. The fundamental differences between direct distribution and voucher-based programming are that: (i) for direct distribution, seeds must be procured in bulk; (ii) beneficiaries have no choice of inputs received through direct distribution, but are able to choose their inputs with vouchers; and (iii) the procurement procedures for direct seed distribution tend to allow only for the provision of improved crop varieties rather than local varieties. In Malawi, direct distribution has been used in conjunction with vouchers or chits, which are used to identify beneficiaries who must present their chit to receive their input package. This should not be confused with the voucher-based programming approach that allows beneficiaries a choice of inputs.

What emerges from the review is the broad range of ways in which direct distribution has been implemented in the three countries, and the limited ways in which voucher-based programming has been used. Variations on direct distribution interventions include the use of commercial agro-dealers as distributing agents, various forms of beneficiary contributions or payments, and the establishment of various secondary structures, such as revolving funds, nurseries and seed banks, and public works infrastructure.

Due to the limited experience with vouchers in the three countries, literature for other countries was drawn from to allow for a more complete analysis. There are two main approaches to programming with vouchers: (i) an approach in which vouchers are redeemable at specified retail shops or distribution outlets, or through designated traders (implemented in Ethiopia); and (ii) an approach known as seed vouchers and fairs (implemented in Mozambique and Malawi). The effectiveness of these approaches does not relate so much to the specific voucher mechanism used as to the finer details of how each programme is designed and implemented. For both approaches, it is important to involve enough vendors to allow for a greater choice of seed types and competitive pricing. However, experiences in the case study countries suggest that commercial seed companies are sometimes reluctant to take part in seed fair programmes.

Although the starting point for the research assumed that voucher-based approaches are a more ‘market-friendly’ mechanism than direct seed distribution for providing seed and other inputs to vulnerable farmers, the findings suggest that this assumption is misplaced. In Mozambique, the available evidence suggests that the use of vouchers has supported commercialization in the informal seed sector more than in the formal seed sector. On the other hand, evidence from Malawi suggests that direct seed distribution approaches that involve agro-dealers in the distribution of seed can support the commercial seed sector through enhancing the capacity of private agro-dealers.

Although such interventions have the potential to support commercial seed markets, they are unlikely to promote, strengthen or develop commercial seed markets. The weak level of development of the seed sectors in the countries studied suggests that seed interventions (whether direct distribution or vouchers) will have little impact in developing commercial seed markets without considerable institutional, developmental and capacity-building interventions explicitly aimed at the various components of the seed sectors.

Based on the case study findings, the following recommendations are made:

  • In view of the chronic nature of the problems affecting farmers in the region and the blurring of seed relief with longer-term agricultural development interventions, it is essential that seed interventions are designed to address clearly articulated objectives that are understood by those implementing the project;

  • Whether a seed intervention is based on direct distribution or voucher-based approaches, it should be designed, not only according to the problem to be addressed, but also according to the level of capacity that exists within the seed sectors;

  • Direct seed distribution or voucher-based approaches alone cannot be expected to strengthen commercial seed markets. Other measures must also be implemented, e.g. to promote the capacity of agro-dealers, to ensure seed quality standards are upheld, to enhance the infrastructure and retail networks through which seed is marketed, and to educate farmers about the seed types available, etc.;

  • The extent to which small-scale, poor farmers rely on informal grain markets for the purchase of planting material should be recognized, particularly in Zambia, where current seed legislation does not allow for the sale of non-certified seed; and

  • Whether or not seed interventions effectively support farmers, agro-dealers and commercial seed markets does not depend on whether they are based on direct distribution or on voucher-based programming, but on the finer details of the ways in which the intervention is designed and managed. Interventions should therefore be carefully designed and managed.
Where vouchers are used, there is sufficient documented experience available to allow for interventions to be both innovative and well-designed.

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