East-West Seed founder sees the value in helping smallholder farmers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America
The mission of East-West Seed is embodied in the story of Kong Sa Em, a 35 year-old farmer from Or Soeur village in Cambodia. She used to feed her family on a yearly income of USD 125, until she was selected as a target farmer by World Vision and East-West Seed. She then learned to grow chai sim, increasing her income in one crop cycle to USD 295. Encouraged by her success she expanded to producing cucumber, receiving a net profit of USD 545 after about one month. She is now also growing multiple other vegetable crops. Em has drastically improved her living standards. Her increased income enabled her to build a small kitchen for her family and buy a motorcycle. Her community considers her as a key farmer, as she advises her neighbours on growing techniques.
This is just one of many stories that illustrate the impact of improved seeds and cultivation techniques. Smallholder farm income is the backbone of small rural economies; when smallholder vegetable farmers in the tropics are supplied high quality seeds, that not only helps them to grow better crops, but also to realize higher yields. East-West Seed Company’s mission is just that; to increase the income of vegetable farmers, and promote the growth and quality of the tropical vegetable industry.
East-West Seed is market leader for tropical vegetable seeds in Asia and expanding in Africa and Latin America. The privately-owned company has played a role in the development and improvement of tropical vegetable varieties in Southeast Asia and other tropical countries. When Dutch seedsman Simon Groot founded the company 35 years ago, he set out to improve the income of smallholder farmers in the tropics through high-quality seeds. East-West Seed develops vegetable varieties that are adapted to tropical markets and growing conditions and generate increased yield and income for farmers. In addition, the company educates farmers and helps them to maximize their yield and income through better knowledge on vegetable production.
“East-West Seed has always had a strong small farmer orientation, small farmers being the great majority of the multi-million-hectare vegetable farming industry in Southeast Asia,” Groot says. “Farmer income growth results in market growth. Input suppliers like seed-suppliers in developing markets are more dependent on long-term market growth than on short-term results.”
Groot established the company in the Philippines in 1982, after he discovered that the modernization of plant breeding into hybrids had largely bypassed that part of the world, except for hybrid cabbage from Japan. Also, the local seed supplies of open pollinated varieties were of unstable quality, causing unpredictability for the farmers.
Groot soon realized his two main objectives; the development of new hybrid varieties for the main fruit-vegetables for the tropics; and the stabilization of the new quality of OP crops (all leafy vegetables, green legume crops, onions and quite a few more) needed a local breeding facility and capacity.
“I saw development potential over there,” says Groot. “There was only a small market yet for vegetable seeds, farmers were saving their own seeds. The consumption of vegetables was high and was more profitable than agricultural crops. With our seeds, small farmers could produce more and have a higher income.”
Recently awarded Best Multinational Company in Thailand, Groot states East-West Seed Company is not really a “multinational” but a ‘multi-local’ company, building on local R&D centres, close cooperation with local universities and run by local management and staff. Simon Groot, now Chairman of the Supervisory Board, shares this vision with Bert van der Feltz, appointed as CEO in 2016.
“We try hard to be as ‘local’ as we can in everything we do but we are always striving for world class quality,” he says. “Farmers are the best judge; it takes several decades of building up the trust of the majority of the farmers to become their favourite seedsman.”
In addition to improving the genetic and physical quality of the seed, Groot says they have also supported farmers with information how to get the maximum benefit from improved seed. In most emerging markets, poor performance of smallholder farmers can be attributed to:
- High rates of poverty
- Lack of knowledge on the benefits of improved varieties
- Poor cultivation techniques
- Weak functioning of value chains
- Lack of access to quality agri-inputs
East-West Seed Company is a firm believer that in this challenging environment, knowledge transfer is a precondition to the improvement of farmers’ productivity and the development of competitive markets in agri-inputs, including seeds.
One of the components of East-West Seed Company is the pride they take in their partnerships. Groot says the transferring of their knowledge is a key driver to the success they have in smaller rural communities.
“At several stages of our development, such partnerships provided good combinations of expertise to enhance the process of farmer- and market-development. As a seedsman and economist, I feel great pride in having created growth potential of farmers income. Quality seed has created substantial added value for small vegetable farmers, especially in combination with knowledge transfer about optimal use of the seed.”
“Historically, agricultural development worldwide has benefited from free movement of crop genetics, as long as phytosanitary risks are well considered and maximally prevented,” says Groot.
“International seed associations, especially the main regionals, should play a major role in dealing with regulatory barriers and some of the regional seed associations are mostly active in low value developing seed-markets. Some public funding of high quality capacity building would be highly desirable.”
In the high-growth area of South-East Asia, the political organization ASEAN, headquartered in Jakarta, together with APSA (Asia-Pacific Seed Association) could play an important role in streamlining the regulatory issues on across-border seed movement.
Recently, East-West Seed made headlines when they supported the Myanmar government in improving the productivity of vegetable farmers. Registered as a foreign company in Myanmar, East-West Seed engaged in producing and distributing high quality vegetable seeds, as well as providing training to farmers through its Knowledge Transfer activities. East-West Seed is establishing the country’s first commercial seed processing facility, with the introduction of an internationally recognized quality assurance system and modern seed processing technologies which add value for the farmers and set new standards for the industry. Despite progress in recent years, poor access to knowledge and limited adoption of technology hamper the productivity of farmers.
In 2015, Simon Groot was recognized when the University-fund Wageningen awarded him the Mansholt Business Award for Sustainable Entrepreneurship 2015.
According to the jury, “Way before there was talk of public-private partnerships, and cooperation between trade and development cooperation, Simon Groot with his company East-West Seed showed how this can be done.”
One example of the many public-private partnerships that East-West Seed is active in, is the cooperation with Wageningen University and Research and with breeding company Rijk Zwaan in Tanzania in a public-private partnership SEVIA (Seeds of Expertise for the Vegetable Sector of Africa) on the improvement of vegetable seeds and production, which is good for farmers incomes and for the growing number of city dwellers.
Groot is a strong advocate of the sharing of knowledge. With farmers in Asia and Africa, the company provides farmers with information about the best production methods and by educating employees. Under chairmanship of Groot’s eldest son Rutger, the East-West Seed Knowledge Transfer foundation builds on new markets by training smallholder farmers in vegetable cultivation.
“It increases your market and the income of farmers,” Groot says. “You have to share your knowledge to come to a better world.” He was also active in the International Seed Federation and a driving force behind the Asia and Pacific Seed Association (APSA), the largest association of national, regional and international seed companies.