Method matters : Exploration and reflection on the study of farmers’ demand for vegetatively propagated seed

Kilwinger, Fleur B.M.


Increasing agricultural production in developing countries via the use of improved seed can contribute to several global development goals set by the United Nations. Seed herein refers to ‘true seed’ in the botanical sense of the word, and any type of other propagate that can be used to reproduce plants. Improved seed refers to seed of improved varieties that are genetically enhanced, and seed of improved physical, physiological and sanitary quality. It is generally perceived within development programs that such improved seeds are developed and disseminated by the formal seed sector. Vegetatively propagated crops, such as banana, potato and cassava, are important staple crops in many developing countries. Smallholder farmers use of improved seed of vegetatively propagated crops is variable and often below experts expectation. Smallholder farmers mainly source their seed from informal seed sources, such as their own farm or fellow farmers.

To increase adoption rates of improved seed among smallholder farmers, seed system interventions are made. Those seed system interventions usually involve the strengthening of the formal seed system and encouragement of farmers’ to source their seeds from formal seed sources. The CGIARs’ Roots Tubers and Bananas (RTB) is one of the large scale research projects that aims to make available good-quality planting materials of a diverse set of high-yielding RTB varieties that are adapted to the needs and preferences of different stakeholders. As part of this program a toolbox was developed to study seed systems which includes research methods from several scientific disciplines such as agronomy, phytopathology, economics and marketing and consumer studies.

The objective of this thesis is to apply and evaluate different research methods from this toolbox that focus on farmers’ seed-sourcing practices. A household survey, seed tracing study, focus group discussions, means-end chain analysis and experimental Vickrey auctions are applied to understand the different insights they provide in farmers’ seed-sourcing practices. The means-end chain analysis and experimental Vickrey auctions are relatively novel tools in the area of seed-systems research. They are evaluated for their appropriateness and usefulness in this specific context. Furthermore is explored what aspects of farmers’ seed-sourcing practices are captured or ignored by the different research methods, and how their combination can result in a more holistic understanding of farmers’ seed-sourcing practices. A final contribution is made exploring how research method do not only describe farmers’ seed-sourcing practices, but also shape them by making certain aspects present while other aspects remain absent.

The first three chapters of this thesis explore what insights in smallholder farmers’ seed-sourcing practices are obtain with large-N household surveys, seed tracing studies, focus-group discussions, in-depth interviews and the means-end chain analysis. Chapter 2 explores Rwandan cassava farmers’ seed-sourcing practices to inform the tailored design of cassava seed business models. Chapter 3 explores the seed-sourcing practices of banana famers in Uganda and how they contribute to the preservation of endemic banana varieties. Chapter 4 explores how Ugandan banana farmers evaluate, and why they value, different banana seed sources. The final two chapters are methodological contributions. In those chapters the underlying assumptions of experimental auctions and the mean-end chain analysis are explored in the light of their application to understand smallholder-farmers seed sourcing practices.

In the discussion of this thesis is explored what aspects of farmers’ seed-sourcing practices are captured by the different research methods, and how they can be combined to get a more holistic understanding of seed systems. By making certain aspects of farmers’ seed-sourcing practices present via statements or descriptions, while other aspects remain absent, research method are performative. Research methods contribute to the making and remaking of seed quality, formal and informal seed systems, farmers’ decision-making, and farmers’ social relations and the relation between farmers and their seeds.