Maize seed systems in different agro-ecosystems; what works and what does not work for smallholder farmers


Maize is a food field crop with a highly developed formal seed sector. The study reported here, involving 4 case studies in Malawi, Zambia, the state of Chiapas in Mexico and the state of Bihar in India, indicates that smallholder farmers are increasingly purchasing seed from the formal maize seed system in these different parts of the world. Points of sale vary from seed agent and agro-dealer to the local rural market. Many farmers are growing hybrid varieties, although, in particular, under conditions where higher yields justify seed costs, and with the objective of maize grain sales rather than home consumption, for which traditional varieties continue to be grown. While the findings indicate well-functioning seed value chains in the areas of study, producer surveys and seed value chain analysis also pointed to significant weak links in the formal maize seed systems that need to be improved, such as certification and seed quality control at point of sale, and the availability of financial services to support investments by farmers in quality seed and in seed entrepreneurship. The seed subsidy programs in Malawi and Zambia are likely to have stimulated the use of hybrid seed, but it is questionable whether farmers will continue to purchase hybrid seed if subsidies cease to be available. Although the 4 areas of study are relatively well developed, still a genuine demand for improved open pollinated varieties (IOPVs), local varieties and/or on-farm seed saving was identified. Therefore it should be recognized that even for maize, in addition to the private formal seed value sector based on hybrid varieties, there remains a task for public maize breeding efforts and farmer based maize seed systems for the foreseeable future.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Seed of hybrid varieties of maize, is produced by crossing two or more inbred lines. Hybrid varieties have the advantage of higher crop uniformity and often higher yield potential than improved open pollinated varieties (IOPVs). Due to the skills required for seed production of hybrid varieties, they are usually more expensive than seeds of OPVs, while crops grown from seed harvested from hybrids are usually less uniform and high yielding compared to the original hybrid.

  2. 2.

    The Out of Poverty Index is a tool to estimate poverty among surveyed households. By including 10 country specific questions about a household’s characteristics and asset ownership in a survey, the tool results in the likelihood that the household lives below or on the poverty line:


  1. Access to Seeds Foundation (2016). Access to seeds index report 2016: Bridging the gap between the world’s leading seed companies and the smallholder farmer, 42–43. Accessed 23 December 2016.

  2. Audet-Bélanger, G., Thijssen, M., Gildemacher, P., Subedi, A., de Boef, W.S, & Heemskerk, W. (2013). Seed value chain analysis. Integrated Seed Sector Development Programme (ISSD) Technical Note No 3, 10pp. Accessed on 23 December 2016.

  3. Audet-Bélanger, G., Gildemacher, P., Hoogendoorn, J., Anderson, J., Böber, C., Donnet, L., & Lweya, K.B. (2016a). How to Assure Access to Affordable High Quality Maize Seed: What Works and Consequences for Program Design – database. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). Accessed on 23 December 2016.

  4. Audet-Bélanger, G., Gildemacher, P., & Hoogendoorn, J. (2016b). Bihar study report; seed sector functioning and the adoption of improved maize varieties. KIT (Royal Tropical Institute), Amsterdam, 35pp. Accessed 23 December 2016.

  5. Audet-Bélanger, G., Gildemacher, P., & Hoogendoorn, J. (2016c). Chiapas study report; seed sector functioning and the adoption of improved maize varieties. KIT (Royal Tropical Institute), Amsterdam, 37pp. Accessed 23 December 2016.

  6. Audet-Bélanger, G., Gildemacher, P., & Hoogendoorn, J. (2016d). Malawi study report; seed sector functioning and the adoption of improved maize varieties. KIT (Royal Tropical Institute), Amsterdam, 36pp. Accessed 23 December 2016.

  7. Audet-Bélanger, G., Gildemacher, P., & Hoogendoorn, J. (2016e). Zambia study report; seed sector functioning and the adoption of improved maize varieties. KIT (Royal Tropical Institute), Amsterdam, 34pp. Accessed 23 December 2016.

  8. Bellon, M. R. (1996). The dynamic of crop Infraspecifc diversity. A conceptual framework at the farmer level. Economic Botany, 50(1), 26–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bellon, M.R., Gotor, E.M., & Caracciolo, F. (2015). Conserving landraces and improving livelihoods: How to assess the success of on-farm conservation projects?. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 13:2, 167-182, accessed 01 December 2017.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Brown, W. L., Zuber, M. S., Darrah, L. L., & Glover, D. V. (1985). Origin, adaptation, and types of corn. Ames, Iowa (p. 6). USA: Iowa State University.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Chirwa, E., & Dorward, A. (2014). The implementation of the 2012/13 farm input subsidy Programme. In FISP policy brief 2014/2. SOAS: University of London. Accessed 23 December 2016.

  12. Damodaran H., & Singh, S. (2015). Bihar: An unlikely corn revolution. Indian express trace Bihar’s recent emergence as a maize powerhouse with farmers harvesting yields comparable to Midwest US levels. Indian Express, first Published on June 4, 2015. Accessed 21 December 2016.

  13. FAO (1992). Maize in human nutrition. Accessed on 23 December 2016.

  14. FAO (2016). FAO Stats. Accessed on 23 December 2016.

  15. Goodman, M. (1976). Maize. In N. W. Simmonds (Ed.), Evolution of crop plants (pp. 128–136). Harlow, UK: Longman Scientific & Technical.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Hartkamp, A. D., White, J. W., Rodríguez Aguilar, A., Bänziger, M., Srinivasan, G., Granados, G., & Crossa, J. (2000). Maize production environments revisited: A GIS-based approach. Mexico, D.F.: CIMMYT.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Louwaers, N. P., & de Boef, W. S. (2012). Integrated seed sector development in Africa; a conceptual framework for creating coherence between practices, programs, and policies. Journal of Crop Improvement, 26, 39–59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. McGuire, S., & Sperling, L. (2016). Seed systems smallholder farmers use. Food Security, 8, 179–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Mofya-Mukuka, R., Kabwe, S., Kuteya, A., & Mason, N.M. (2013). How can the Zambian government improve the targeting of the farmer input support program? Indaba agricultural policy research institute, Lusaka, Zambia, Policy brief Number 59, 7pp. Accessed on 31 December 2016.

  20. OECD, 2012. OECD schemes for the varietal certification or the control of seed moving in international trade, 17 pp. Accessed on 23 December 2016.

  21. Pixley, K., & Bänzinger, M. (2004). Open-Pollinated Maize Varieties: A Backward Step or Valuable Option for Farmers? In: D.K. Friesen & A.F.E. Palmer (Eds). Integrated Approaches to Higher Maize Productivity in the New Millennium. Proceedings of the Seventh Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Maize Conference. February 5-11, 2001, Nairobi, Kenya: CIMMYT and KARI, 22–28.

  22. Singh, N., Ambika Rajendra, R., Shekhar, M., Jat, S.L., Kumar, R., & Sai Kumar, R. (2012). Rabi maize opportunities & challenges. Technical bulletin, no. 9. New Delhi, India: Directorate of Maize Research, 32 pp.

  23. Smale, M., & Olwande, J. (2014). Demand for maize hybrids and hybrid change on smallholder farms in Kenya. Agricultural Economics, 45, 409–420.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Subedi, A., de Boef, W.S. et al. (2013). Seed systems analysis. Integrated Seed Sector Development Programme (ISSD) Technical Notes No 2, 7pp. Accessed on 23 December 2016.

Download references


We are very grateful for the contribution of our local consultants Davies Melele and Parki Mbozi in Zambia, Alexander Phiri in Malawi, Juan Diego Lopez Durante and Fidel Ochoa Rosales in Chiapas, and Sanjay Tiwari and his team in India. We also like to acknowledge the invaluable advice and support of our CIMMYT colleagues Jens Anderson, Peter Setimela, Arturo Silva Hinojosa, Madhulika Singh and Pankaj Kumar and KIT colleague Marcelo Tyszler. This study was made possible through the financial and logistical support provided by the CGIAR Research Program MAIZE. Last but not least we are extremely indebted to all of the 1226 smallholder maize farmers who participated in our surveys as well as the 137 participants of our stakeholder workshops and interviews.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. Coosje Hoogendoorn.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval and informed consent

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants, such as the household surveys, were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hoogendoorn, J., Audet-Bélanger, G., Böber, C. et al. Maize seed systems in different agro-ecosystems; what works and what does not work for smallholder farmers. Food Sec. 10, 1089–1103 (2018).

Download citation


  • Seed access
  • Seed quality
  • Hybrids
  • IOPVs
  • Local varieties
  • Chiapas
  • Bihar
  • Malawi
  • Zambia