A model of sustainability: NASECO shares six ways to build a thriving seed company Kelah Kaimenyi

What began as a development project has steadily grown into a thriving seed company in Uganda. Nalweyo Seed Company (NASECO) was first established in 1996 as part of a project that supplied free seed from Uganda’s National Agriculture Research Organization to farmers in Nalweyo village, Uganda.

NASECO has since grown from producing 20 tons of seed in 1999 to over 3,000 tons in 2016, exports 10 percent of its product to Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and South Sudan and continues to expand across eastern Africa. NASECO also produces three of Uganda’s top-selling maize varieties that are high-yielding, drought and disease tolerant, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Nicolai Rodeyns, Managing Director of NASECO, poses with bags of the range of improved seeds produced by NASECO. Photo: K. Kaimenyi/CIMMYT

Part of the company's success is due to strong collaboration with various partners, including maize seed contributions and funds from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), that have allowed them to expand their market and product growth. The CIMMYT-led Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Seed Scaling (DTMASS) project in particular has helped NASECO and other companies plan business development and marketing strategies, as well as build their facilities, since 2015. NASECO now has over 2,000 demonstration plots mapped out across the country and is an industry leader in Uganda with 100 percent of its certified seed meeting certification standards.

Below are six key business practices that NASECO Managing Director Nicolai Rodeyns credits to the company’s success.

1) Farmer-driven development

Farmer demand as the driver of progress is what NASECO strives for by ensuring the seed they sell meets farmers’ needs and preferences.

“Our growth has been gradual – not sporadic – and based largely on repeat purchases,” says Rodeyns, adding, “Farmers shouldn’t be viewed only as consumers, but as investors too – if they are able to profit from your product, they will continue to purchase from you.”

2) Quality over quantity

NASECO keeps a lean range of products for two reasons: to maintain product integrity and not overwhelm customers with too many choices. When a more improved variety is released, it replaces an existing one rather than adds to NASECO’s products.

“We believe that few but very high quality products work well,” says Rodeyns. “For instance, our top selling drought tolerant hybrids are Longe 10H, Longe 7H-IR and Bazooka so we produce them exclusively until we find a variety with better traits. However, before we introduce a new variety into the market, we have to be absolutely sure that it's good for the company—meaning production costs are low—and that it has the benefits farmers need, such as reduced crop failure and high yield.”

3) Hybrid seed

NASECO’s hybrid production comprises 65 percent of their total seed production. This is demand driven, according to Rodeyns, despite hybrids being more expensive to buy.

“From my experience, a lot of farmers prefer hybrids to open pollinated varieties (OPVs), and don’t mind paying a little extra for the hybrid seed,” says Rodeyns. “It’s an investment that pays off when they harvest an extra ton or two of grain compared to OPVs. This payoff ultimately influences purchasing choices in favor of hybrids.”

Bazooka – a drought and disease tolerant maize variety – has a heavy stem that enables farmers in eastern Africa’s highland areas to improve their income by intercropping climbing beans while growing the maize. By the time Bazooka is ready to harvest, the climbing beans are ready to pick too. Using Bazooka stems for support also saves farmers a great deal of time and effort digging in sticks separately to grow the beans.

4) Farmer-inclusive marketing

NASECO executes marketing strategies that map out consumer demand and product placement, while directly interacting with farmers through demonstration sites to show crop performance and best growing practices.

“Bazooka’s success is largely because it was available in shops as soon as it was released,” says Rodeyns. “One of the biggest mistakes some seed companies make is to introduce a new variety, but not have enough stock produced to sell. By anticipating demand for our product, we already had parent seed bulked, resulting in ready stocks for sale.”

NASECO has over 500 demonstration plots across Uganda which promote new seed while educating farmers on proper crop management such as seeding rates, early planting, weeding and fertilizer application.

“Demonstrations remain the best promotional tool for us,” says Rodeyns. “The farmer has to see the product’s potential before investing in it. We've seen increased sales where we put up demonstrations, so our distribution network is strengthened as a result.”

5) Proper seed storage

Post-harvest losses from poor storage are easily avoidable, yet are still common throughout eastern Africa.

“NASECO is one of few companies that has invested in silo storage,” says Rodeyns. “Given this area's high humidity levels, storing seed in bags may lead to germination loss due to buildup of moisture. With silos, this can be controlled through re-drying and re-storage,”

NASECO’s silos hold up to 750 tons of seed, while construction of a new silo that can hold 1,000 tons of seed is almost complete.

6) Digital integration

In addition to digitally mapping out demonstration plots with global positioning systems, NASECO has developed an app to meet demand in real-time.

“To track our distribution, we've developed a mobile application where our extension officers input location information of demonstrations and selling points. With this information, we are able to quickly send seed to the area.”

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