The setting up of laboratories for seeds inspection is underway on a plot of land in Akaki Qality District, behind St. Gabrial Church. The 23,000sqm land is under the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), which plans to finance the construction of two facilities with a project cost of 700 million Br.

The project is part of the second phase of the Agricultural Growth Programme (AGP-II), designed to benefit 3.5 million rural households across seven regional states and Dire Dawa through small-scale irrigation schemes and other initiatives. It began in 2015 with a 661 million dollar budget, of which the World Bank covers 65pc. It has also approved 80 million dollars in additional financing.

Initially, the plan was to construct four laboratories. However, slow progress has pushed the Ministry to downsize.

The Ministry is expecting the disbursement of up to 200 million Br to resume the construction phase of the laboratory project, according to Fisseha Teshome, director of seed standard regulation at the Ministry. The installation of laboratory equipment is to follow the completion of construction. A private firm, Aspire Aecom Consulting Architects & Engineers, has designed the six-storey (each) edifices for half a million Birr.

There are over 1,400 seed varieties of 50 crop types, showing that seed varieties in Ethiopia remain small. In the absence of internationally accredited seed testing laboratories in Ethiopia, officials say the construction of the laboratories is necessary for improved seed quality provision for enhanced agricultural productivity.

Experts like Assefa Senbeta, a plant scientist who worked at the Ethiopian Seed Enterprise (ESE) for over 20 years, applauded the move. However, he cautions the federal government that it must work to make at least one of its seed testing laboratories serve as a domestic reference laboratory until the latest project is completed.

“Major investment is needed to procure and maintain lab equipment to upgrade existing laboratories,” said Assefa.

The Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR), a federal agency providing seed quality inspection services, operates 20 research centres. They test 350 seed samples annually but cannot cover more than half of the demand. Six labs are located in the Oromia Regional State, while five are in the Amhara Regional State. Rural households' demand for improved seeds was estimated at 2.1 million quintals last year, over four times larger than the supply.

Seed certification involves both field and laboratory testing. Inspections focus on genetic purity, followed by laboratory tests that measure physical purity, moisture content, and germination rate. Purity should be at least 97pc, while the minimum acceptable germination rate is 85pc. The quality assessment also includes grow-out tests of seeds in the market to verify the genetic purity of specific seed samples.

“A seed variety recently exported to India was returned due to poor quality control," Fisseha Teshome, director of seed standard regulation at the Ministry, told Fortune. “If things go according to plan, the project will be completed in four years.”

Depending on crop type, it can cost between 250,000 Br and 1.5 million Br to certify and register a particular seed variety.

The Agricultural Input Authority, responsible for seed quality control, was dissolved 17 years ago. Since 2005, the Agriculture Ministry has been tasked to certify seeds following assessments at the research centres. The newly-established Ethiopian Agricultural Authority, one of nearly a dozen proposed government institutions to receive a nod from the Council of Ministers earlier this month, will oversee the issuance of permits for importers and distributors of agricultural inputs such as improved seeds.

Established in 1972, Ambo Agricultural Research Centre provides laboratory services to assess seeds' resistance to disease. It is equipped with germination boxes, seed dividers, and moisture metres. But these are only the essentials required to provide laboratory services, according to Bedanie Gudeta, a plant expert at the Centre.

Bedanie and another expert run the laboratory.

“There is no lab technician who performs the practical hands-on work,” he told Fortune.

Companies often send samples abroad for testing, including in South Africa and Kenya, for hefty costs.

A supplier of pharmaceutical products and agricultural inputs, Bayer Crop Science Ethiopia has been among the private companies in the seed market since the late 1960s. It has three seed accredited varieties in Ethiopia. Recently, the company shipped two kilogrammes of maize seed to South Africa for germination laboratory tests.

“We send at least one sample abroad for laboratory testing every year,” said Jemal Abdurahman, market development and agronomy representative.

Pioneer Hi-Bred Seeds, a private company in the domestic production of hybrid seeds for the past three decades, has sent samples to South Africa for laboratory tests. The absence of internationally accredited labs remains a serious issue, according to Yilma Amenu, a senior agronomist at the company. Yilma observed that it is becoming more expensive to conduct tests abroad as shipment costs escalate.

Testing a sample cost up to 236 dollars in Kenya, compared to 160 Br companies charged locally.

Pioneer is one of 16 private companies in the multiplication and distribution of improved seeds.

Ministry officials hope to open the trade to the private sector by repealing an eight-year-old law that governs the distribution and marketing of seeds. The bill has been tabled to Parliament for ratification. The move is expected to pave the way for the private sector to produce improved plant varieties and contribute to an uptick in agricultural output.

A regulation that grants plant breeders intellectual property rights was approved by the Council of Ministers last week.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 02,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1144]

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