Tanzania edge closer to approving seed standards for Sweetpotato, Potato and Cassava

The Government of Tanzania has moved a step closer to approving standards for different classes of seed for sweetpotato, cassava and potato. Addressing stakeholders at a final joint consultative meeting held on March 3, 2015 at the Agricultural Research Institute- Kibaha, the acting Director General of the Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute (TOSCI), Dr. Hamis Mtwaenzi, said TOSCI is determined to seeing that the proposed standards receive ministerial assent. Dr. Mtwaenzi added that the certification process will ensure seed producers are giving farmers quality planting materials hence contribute to improved food security and poverty reduction. He also emphasized the importance of a joint approach and dialogue among cassava, potato and sweetpotato stakeholders since the three crops have common challenges. Unlike cereals, the three do not require compulsory certification at the moment.

Protocols and standards for Quality Declared Planting Material (QDPM) for vegetatively propagated crops were published by FAO in 2010 but are yet to be adapted to national conditions at country level. Previous project interventions have highlighted that quality assurance is important due to disease and pest constraints. Sweetpotato production is particularly hampered by viruses in single and complex infections (i.e. sweetpotato virus disease (SPVD)) and weevil infestation, both of which can be transferred through planting material. In Tanzania, formal inspection and certification schemes exist for grain crops only. Vegetatively propagated crops (VPCs) including sweetpotato have been left behind due to the perceived low status of the crops. However, with increasing commercialization, there has been a growing interest to introduce certification and inspection procedures for VPCs. The concerns of the authorities are to prevent the spread of plant borne diseases and protect farmers from unscrupulous seed traders. However, the characteristics of VPCs – in particular the bulky and perishable nature of their planting materials – means that the process of  certification used for seed of grain crops cannot be simply transferred for use in VPCs.

The meeting at Kibaha brought together cassava, potato and sweetpotato stakeholders to share experiences across the crops and present and review the standards with the TOSCI legal team. For sweetpotato stakeholders this was the culmination of previous meetings hosted by Lake Zone Agricultural Research and Development Institute (LZARDI) and TOSCI in collaboration with the International Potato Center (CIP) in 2014 and 2015 to discuss and develop seed standards (Pre-basic, Basic, Certified 1, Certified 2 and Quality Declared Seed). The draft standards were presented at the joint cassava, potato and sweetpotato stakeholders’ workshop held at ARI- Kibaha. The next step is now for the legal team to present the standards to the Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives for assent after which they will be officially published.

The journey towards domestication of the FAO QDPM standards for sweetpotato in Tanzania started in 2009. The idea to validate the FAO standards for sweetpotato was proposed by Dr. Ian Barker (then Head of Virology at CIP) as part of the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) seed system intervention, ‘Marando Bora’ (Swahili for Quality Vines). In 2011 a pilot study was initiated at the Lake Zone with the objective of testing different approaches for a community based QDPM inspection scheme based on the FAO QDPM protocols and standards. A participatory workshop was held in October 2011 to prepare the inspection procedures based on the FAO protocols and standards. Three inspection models were then investigated. These were: “self-inspection” centered on existing practices for farmer selection of material; “team inspection”, where the local village-based agriculture extension provider inspected the multiplication plot together with the decentralized vine multiplier (DVM); and “external” inspection where the district-based crop protection officer conducted the inspection. The hypothesis which was tested was that the implementation of QDPM guidelines through a team inspection system would improve vine quality produced by decentralized vine multipliers (DVMs) in a cost effective way. The pilot was conducted over two seasons in 2012.

Mwanza Plant Health Officer Dorothy Lusheshanija providing feedback on the QDPM inspection to Tunu Group multipliers. Photo credit: M.McEwan
Mwanza Plant Health Officer Dorothy Lusheshanija providing feedback on the QDPM inspection to Tunu Group multipliers. Photo credit: M.McEwan

For the first season, 64% of all plots inspected achieved the “acceptable” standard based on the locally negotiated tolerance levels, but this reduced to 55% of plots in the second season.  If the FAO tolerance levels and standards were used, 25% and 14% of plots would have been scored as acceptable in each season respectively. The parameter which was most contentious was for signs of weevil infestation. In the FAO standards, the tolerance level is set at “zero”; however, multipliers argued that they knew how to harvest only the upper part of the vine to avoid weevil eggs and to treat the vines with appropriate pesticides. They proposed that local conditions should be taken into account, and that the tolerance level should be 10%.  After completion of the pilot studies engagement with the national regulatory bodies continued in order to feed the experiences from the field level into the national process.

One of the major issues arising from the series of consultative meetings is the burden of the costs of inspection especially at the QDS level ( i.e. what amount is reasonable and who will pay? Is it the seed producers, TOSCI or both?). Although ultimately it is farmers who will pay if they see that there are benefits from planting seed which has been checked for its quality. Stakeholders who met at Kibaha suggested that the scale of production and profits accrued to the multiplier should be factored in. For instance, it was proposed that at the Quality Declared Seed level multipliers can pay an amount equivalent to 5% of their net income from sale of planting materials. The government can then subsidize the rest. Additionally, it was proposed that decentralization of the inspections will help reduce associated costs. Indeed the decentralized approach using the ‘team inspection’ model came out as the most cost-effective during the aforementioned pilot studies under Marando Bora. The cost of inspecting one site/visit was $25.30 using the District Plant Protection Officer (DPPO) compared to $10 when using the Village Extension Officer (VEO). Furthermore, the inspections only made economic sense when the scale of multiplication increased to about 0.5ha. The cost of inspection should be reasonable such that it does not discourage seed producers nor impede the implementation process. There is also need to understand the level of quality that farmers are willing to pay for and the real demand for clean seed of existing varieties compared to that of new varieties.

The new standards are expected to receive Ministerial assent and go into effect in the next two to three months. Their successful implementation will boost productivity by ensuring that farmers have access to clean planting materials. Any increase in production of sweetpotato, cassava, and potato will have a positive impact on food security. Furthermore, according to a decentralized vine multiplier who attended the Kibaha workshop, certification will play an important role in the development of the market for vines. Meanwhile, together with multipliers and farmers, CIP and national scientists will monitor the implementation of the seed standards and inspection protocols to understand the institutional implications and what benefits actually accrue to farmers. It is also important to continue to test and adapt technologies that can reduce exposure to pest and disease vectors such as the “net tunnel” technology where the correlation between a range of pest and disease parameters and reduction in yield will be validated. In pursuit of quality it is important to be cautious and ensure that over-regulation and bureaucracy do not stifle emerging seed entrepreneurs at birth. Increased yields are vital but only if farmers have access to output markets. A multi-pronged strategy is needed: Breeding to develop virus-tolerant/resistant varieties; strengthening the capacities of farmers to maintain seed quality; and advocating for devolved authority to develop informal quality assurance systems to cover multiple, dispersed, small scale sites; together with laboratory testing of the source material as it enters the seed value chain i.e. at a limited number of facilities.

potato, sweetpotato, tanzania