Strengthening rice seed systems and agro-biodiversity conservation in West Africa: a socio-technical focus on farmers’ practices of rice seed development and diversity conservation in Susu cross border lands of Guinea and Sierra Leone

F. Okry

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Some decades ago it became clear that formal agricultural research institutions - and hence formal interventions in agriculture - were somehow missing their targets for African farmers, mainly because their proposed solutions, and the ways these solutions were developed and introduced to African farming communities, did not match the realities of peasant life. It was recommended that the formal research should consider the wider contexts within which farmers operated to formulate better solutions. These solutions are essential for low-resource farmers facing many (socio-economic and cultural) constraints and having to cope with uncertainties (climate change, market variations, soil degradation, political and social unrest). The research presented in this thesis analyses the functioning of West African rice seed systems with regards to this recommendation. It starts with a regional focus (seven West African coastal countries) and then focuses on specific in-depth field studies undertaken in Guinea (with some comparison from neighbouring Sierra Leone). The study is based on an interdisciplinary approach combining methods from social and natural sciences.

Findings show that despite efforts from governments, policy makers and formal agricultural research, the informal seed system still predominates, largely because it is the seed system closest to low-resource farmers. The objective of replacing the informal seed system by a formal seed system exclusively promoting improved varieties is a distant prospect. The research shows that local varieties are, to a large extent, superior to improved varieties in the sub-optimal conditions facing most farmers. It is also shown that even when improved varieties suit farmers’ conditions they are often channeled through inappropriate institutional arrangements that block access by low-resource farmers. Formal seed projects often lack follow-up to sustain actions. Innovations are lost between research planning, donor requirements to demonstrate adoption and the realities of peasant coping strategies. It is argued that success indicators in the formal seed system need to be redefined based on a clear conceptual divide between variety dissemination and bulk seed supply. The formal seed system merges these two activities whereas the informal seed system pursues a different path and addresses different procedural constraints. We suggest seed projects should concentrate on variety dissemination and leave bulk seed supply to local seed dealers. The thesis demonstrates that local dealers are effective and more closely in tune with farmer needs.

The major finding of this thesis is that the informal seed system is closer to farmers, and works well, because it reflects (and is integrated with) local ideas about food security and social solidarity. This social dimension is missing in the formal system, designed and funded by experts who neither live by planting rice nor share in the local sets of assumptions about social reciprocity and obligation. Guinea may be undermining its long-term food security if it continues to seek to replace a social seed system with one driven solely by abstract ideas of economic rationality. The better option, supported by the weight of evidence in this thesis, is to seek complementarity and synergy between the two systems.

Keywords: Oryza sativa, Oryza glaberrima, food security, formal seed system, informal seed system, varietal diversity, sub-optimal agriculture, small-scale farmers, farmers’ practices, Guinea, Sierra Leone, West Africa.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Richards, Paul, Promotor
  • Struik, Paul, Promotor
  • Nuijten, Edwin, Co-promotor
  • van Mele, P., Co-promotor, External person
Award date21 Dec 2011
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789461731111
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • crops
  • oryza
  • agro-biodiversity
  • seeds
  • varieties
  • subsistence farming
  • west africa
  • guinea
  • sierra leone
  • rice


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