The world of humanitarian aid commonly assumes farmers confronting stress (like drought, flood, earthquake) are lacking seed to plant — and that this is their number one challenge. But new evidence from Ethiopia calls this ‘common assumption’ into question.

2015 was a catastrophic year for millions of Ethiopian smallholders. According to the head of Ethiopia’s National Disaster Prevention Committee, the country faced the worst drought it had seen in 50 years, due in large part to El Nino. The Ethiopian government estimated as many as 10.2 million people to be in need of humanitarian assistance due to widespread crop and livestock losses. A recently completed Seed System Security Assessment (SSSA) added extensive ground-truthing to the situation [1]. The purpose of the SSSA is to help development managers and field staff assess whether interventions in seed systems are needed. (Learn more about SSSAs.) Methods included a survey of nearly 500 households, interviews with about 50 seed/grain traders, and multiple community meetings and key informant sessions.

While 70% of farmers reported they sowed less than usual during the 2016 Meher (primary cropping season), astonishly few (only 1.3%) indicated that seed was not available in their local area. Lack of money – to purchase planting material – was virtually the only seed-related constraint.

By contrast, non-seed factors of production – especially insufficient access to land, few oxen for plowing and variable, dry weather – amounted to more than 50% of the reasons cited.


Reasons farmers sowed less during the 2016 Meher

No money to buy seed – 23.4%
No seed available from markets, traders, or neighbors – 1.3%
Non-seed factors of production – 53%


The select insights show that seed availability may not always be a primary constraint in emergency, high stress contexts. Farmers may be able to locate and even afford seed, but lack fertile land or reliable rains for sowing it. In such a situation, giving free seed—even to those who are constrained to sowing less—may have little positive result, and, in fact, turn out to be a waste of scarce humanitarian resources.


[1] Led by Catholic Relief Services, a consortium of partners implemented the SSSA, including Integrated Seed Sector Development (ISSD) – Ethiopia , Ethio-Wetlands & Natural Resources Association (EWNRA), the Organization for Rehabilitation and Development (ORDA) in Amhara, the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), and the Meki/Dera, Sodo, and Hosanna branches of the Ethiopian Catholic Church Social Development Coordinating Office.