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Fake seed throws farmers, market into quandary

AGRIPPA Sithole is a known major maize farmer in his area in Bikita, Masvingo province, and year after year, save of course for the drought seasons, it is a given that Sithole will have a bumper maize harvest.

Something strange, however, happened to Sithole this season, notwithstanding it being a drought year.

He prepared his land as usual and on time and planted his maize crop around the same time he does every year.

The rains came, erratic as they were this time around owing to the predicted El Niño phenomenon, and all around his area, the planted maize germinated and began to grow.

But Sithole’s vast fields remained plain gray, the colour of the soil of his fields. Not a single seed germinated.

A worried Sithole dug up a few seeds, only to find rotting kernels.

He realised then that he had made a mistake by buying the cheaply priced seed that he thought he had been lucky to find when he visited his son in Harare.

Sithole had bought the seed at Mbare Musika as he was boarding a bus back to Bikita after having spent a week with his grandchildren in Harare.

He had been given money for maize seed by his son and was going to buy the seed at his reputable shop at Nyika growth point, but that was not to be.

A decent looking and soft-spoken young man approached him at Mbare Musika with a 10kg packet of Seed Co maize seed whose price was irresistible.

After what Sithole saw as manna from heaven, he ended up buying 60kg of seed for just over half the price at his usual shop at Nyika growth point.

After the deal, Sithole was the happiest farmer in the world and his journey home was the longest ever. He could not wait to brag to his wife about the clever deal he had struck in the heart of Harare.

But it soon proved to be Sithole’s worst nightmare and source of tears, prompting a Truth Diggers investigation into the proliferation of fake maize seed in the country.

Truth Diggers is Alpha Media Holdings’ investigative unit.

Nestled in the middle of the plastic and metal jungle of Mbare Musika, the country’s largest agricultural market located in Zimbabwe’s oldest high-density suburb of Mbare, is a row of little tuckshops.

They are, this time of the year, a haven of agricultural items — claiming their fair share of the multi-million daily trade in this market.

They have established prominence as “reliable” sources of agricultural chemicals, fertilisers and crop seed and this makes them stand out among the multitude of tuckshops in this part of Mbare.

Upon entering the crammed, rectangular tuckshop one Friday afternoon, the shop minder was blasting music from a radio.

What caught our eye, however, was the maize seed displayed in cups that were atop open bags of seed being advertised at US$1 per cup.

The tuckshop employee claimed that the maize seed was a product of seed firm, Seed Co Limited (SCL) and, indeed, a look at the SCL bag upon which the cup was resting confirmed the company’s labelling.

When we asked more questions regarding the seed’s origin, the worker turned up the volume of the radio to drown out the inquiries and remained silent.

We later learnt that the police had made arrests in the vicinity that morning — including tuckshop and hardware store minders as well as vendors and hawkers — for selling fake seed, the reason for Truth Diggers’ presence at the tuckshops in its quest to establish the source of Sithole’s ordeal.

It so happens that Sithole is not alone, but many farmers, particularly poor communal farmers, are duped each summer cropping season by vendors of counterfeit seed in Mbare.

What happens, as explained by a source who claimed to have knowledge of the conmen’s modus operandi, is that the crooks buy ordinary untreated maize from Mbare Musika and use green chalk and other substances to colour the grain. This takes place inside small, shack factories in Mbare.

“They paint the maize using mainly green chalk which sticks quite easily on seed, but discolours fast when immersed in water or when one rubs it between fingers,” the source said.

Seed Co group chief executive officer (CEO) Morgan Nzwere confirmed this saying the fake seed was sold mainly in places were smallholder and communal farmers buy seed.

Such complaints are rarely heard from big commercial farmers who obtain their seed from reputable outlets.

“They just buy grain, paint it green, and put it on the market. Sometimes they buy packaging written Seed Co or they just imitate the Seed Co packaging and then put it on the market,” said the Seed Co CEO.

He said Seed Co was working with the police to combat the proliferation of fake seed on the market.

“We are working with the police and the authorities, the ministry (the Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development ministry), to try and put an end to it. I think the challenge is that the fines that these people are made to pay when they are caught are not deterrent enough and that’s where the challenge is,” Nzwere said.

Police have, over the years, worked tirelessly to enforce provisions of the Seed Act [Chapter 19:13] and dozens of offenders have been arrested.

Police last year seized over eight tonnes of fake maize seed with an estimated street value of US$20 000.

Prior to Truth Diggers’ Mbare visit, a police operation in the area had netted several suspects who were caught selling fake seeds.

“We are currently dealing with several cases in terms of suspects who are selling fake or counterfeit maize seeds. We have joint operations and the current operation started last year around October/November,” national police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi told Truth Diggers.

“There is no going back in the fight against counterfeit seed. We have implored the public to acquire seed packs from reputable seed outlets which are registered, and not those that are working from street corners.”

Nyathi said their investigations had established that fake seed was being sold mainly at tuckshops, people’s markets and unregistered hardware stores.

“It might seem though as if it is just Mbare in Harare where fake seed is found, but that is not so. This crime is in many towns and cities. Yes, we have had some arrests in Mbare, but it is not only in Mbare. Other places notorious for such activities include Marondera and Chinhoyi, but the practice has spread to many other parts of the country. Majority cases, however, are coming from Harare.”

Sources who spoke to Truth Diggers said several shops along Harare’s Kenneth Kaunda Avenue, opposite the main railway station, were also notorious for selling fake agricultural inputs, including seed, fertilisers and crop chemicals.

Police said they had, over the years, urged farmers to be on high alert for fake inputs, unfortunately, there were always those that fall victim to these sweet-talking crooks.

An easy way to identify genuine from fake seed is to immerse the kernel in water.

The fake seed discolours quickly, while the genuine seed will retain the colour for long.

“The quality of the paint, the quality of patterns (of the fake seed) is not that good. Particularly, if you look at how the paint is applied on the seed, it is quite evident that it’s not proper seed,” Nzwere said.

“If you look at how we apply our chemicals, it is evenly distributed. But, for a small-scale farmer out there, they won’t be able to tell the difference. Sometimes it is difficult, especially selling it in cups. They would have broken a 10kg (kilogrammes) bag and are now selling in small quantities. It becomes difficult for these people.”

He said people selling counterfeit seed were, however, getting better and better in the methods they used to dupe farmers.

Seed Co signature maize seed is often painted green, which is basically chemicals applied to help the seed to germinate according to the specific type.

Police said they were working with agronomists to determine the substance used by the conmen to colour the grain into fake seed.

The seeds at tuckshops are advertised in metal cups that hold a weight of 240 grammes on average.

Thus, for a typical 10kg Seed Co bag of maize, seed selling for US$35 for ultra-early maturity or short-term maturity, the tuckshops will be selling 42 cups at a dollar each, giving them a profit of US$7 per 10kg bag.

Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Shadreck Makombe, however, said his organisation had observed that less and less people were buying seed from broken packages than before.

“The issue of fake seed has not been as rampant as it was before. If it is happening, I think it’s now happening on the peripherals as opposed to the past, where the seed would be sold everywhere and where a lot of people would rush for it. We have been encouraging farmers to buy from registered points,” Makombe said.

In its half year ended September 30, 2023, Seed Co spent ZWL$9,6 billion on research in making its seeds more resilient against increasing shocks from climate, a 109% increase from the 2022 comparative period.

That expenditure translated to US$1,75 million.

“Research and development remains the key competitive advantage for the company. Various research initiatives are at various stages of the pipeline to produce climate responsive products,” Seed Co said in its half year report.



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