Seed regulation is vital for rural development

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Katrin Kuhlmann and her New Markets Lab have been partnering with our Foundation for a decade. Two major studies in Africa are the most recent result. We asked her about the findings, future needs in seed markets, and further aspects of her fascination with international trade legislation.

Syngenta Foundation: How would you summarize the two studies? 
Katrin Kuhlmann: A longer summary is provided at the end of this interview*. But briefly: The ‘Check Back Study’ looked at regional seed registration in four of Africa’s Regional Economic Communities. We found that ECOWAS has registered the most varieties at the regional level overall and the most public varieties. Across the communities, there have been significant changes in national seed systems, but some countries are still aligning with regional rules. Coordination between national and regional institutions is getting stronger but is still somewhat limited, and awareness of regional rules needs to be strengthened.

The ‘Licensing Study’ examined capacity-building and licensing needs in Malawi, Mali, Senegal, and Uganda. It shows that there is general unfamiliarity with licensing agreements and a lack of relevant institutional frameworks and policies. Building on previous PASTTA work, we are therefore planning a workshop for Malawi with African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). Here, as at previous such events in other countries, we’ll discuss the importance of licensing agreements for disseminating public technology. The workshop will look at key aspects of such agreements for both licensor and licensee, taking into account the impact on vulnerable stakeholders as well. 

Why are the studies important for smallholders?
Smallholder focus is central to NML’s mission. Both regional integrations of seed systems and licensing agreements improve farmers’ access to good varieties. Regional seed systems enable the creation of broader markets with a better choice of varieties. They thus also provide opportunities for small enterprises.  Licensing agreements help ensure that public technology reaches smallholders, by establishing a mechanism for commercializing these innovations.  And at the workshop, we’ll present options to ensure sure that licenses reflect the needs of small farmers and women.  

For you personally: What are the big surprises in these studies? 
One of the most significant messages from both studies is the importance of designing good rules and regulations and consistently applying these in practice. NML has been preaching that for years; the “surprises” are more related to what influences the design and implementation. The Check Back study found, for example, that the West African seed catalog is currently better designed to incorporate public technology than those in Eastern and Southern Africa.  The Licensing Study underlined the importance of capacity-building, a topic close to NML’s heart. The surprise here for some is that capacity-building is a process – a workshop is just the first step.

Why is the “Check Back” mechanism called that?
NML has been working with the Syngenta Foundation (SFSA) on regional harmonization of agricultural and seed rules since 2012. We realized that it was time to “check back” on earlier work now that regional efforts have advanced. The study was built on several manuals, assessments, and studies in the interim. Following up on earlier efforts to facilitate the registration of almost 30 varieties in several crops was a collaborative effort. We worked with seed companies and vetted our findings with regional regulatory bodies. With seed markets now developing faster, it may in the future make sense to do this annually.

Checking is important, but not enough on its own. In the PASTTA context: What more is needed to move from checking to actual improvement? 
As with all of our work, our collaboration with SFSA under PASTTA focuses heavily on implementation.  The Check Back has led to deeper work to facilitate the registration of public varieties in the Eastern and Southern regional catalogs. We hope that this leads to actual change in practice; PASTTA can play an important enabling role. Both studies helped us identify challenges. Our recommendations to tackle them include more capacity-building workshops (and longer-term legal capacity-building efforts), wide dissemination of legal tools such as regional manuals, adopting Variety Identification Numbers (VIN), and building National Seed Authorities’ capacity to facilitate variety registration. 

Why is licensing so important? What is required to make it a standard feature of African seeds markets?  
Licensing is a ‘missing link’ between public R&D and commercial markets. A licensing agreement essentially sets the terms and conditions for getting improved varieties into farmers’ hands. In Africa, we’ve found that there is great interest in licensing agreements, but a lack of experience with them. Enhanced capacity-building helps the public sector enter into and implement such agreements. Workshops are a great first step, and there we have been training future trainers within African public institutions. But more hands-on capacity-building is also required. In addition, research centers in most countries still need to develop an institutional framework for licensing public varieties and for dealing with intellectual property, which is related but separate.

NML is planning a digital platform that could house a licensing module for the seed sector. What more can you tell us about this?
We are very excited about our plans for a digital platform. We hope the platform will contribute to a more holistic approach to legal and regulatory design and implementation. It would serve two main functions. First, it would house our research since 2010, tools we’ve developed to address gaps in the system, agreement templates (like licensing agreement models)s, and Regulatory Systems Maps (RSMs). RSMs are a tool we designed to break down complex regulatory processes into single steps. They also show policymakers and other stakeholders various options for streamlining processes and addressing development goals. Second, the digital platform would help us to scale up our legal capacity-building. We envision the creation of tailored modules (for example, on licensing agreements) that would enable users to improve seed systems. We plan to make these modules publicly available. 

NML specializes in areas that hold significant potential for economic development but are also heavily regulated. Is regulation in those areas more a barrier to development – or more its precondition?
Complex regulation is common in areas that are themselves complex; agriculture is a perfect example.  However, there are various ways to design laws and regulations in such areas. Complexity can sometimes be reduced to the benefit of market stakeholders, particularly smallholders who may be left out if the system is too complicated.  We focus on simplifying legal and regulatory systems so that they are more fit-for-purpose, inclusive, and sustainable.

NML has partnered with SFSA and its Seeds2B initiative since 2012. What, for you, are the keys to such a long-term collaboration?
We share values and a vision for the longer-term impact of our work – we both think that agricultural systems, including legal systems, should be designed with the farmer in mind, and we seek creative, effective solutions to achieve this. Innovation has also been a component of our work together, and I think that we each have deep respect for what the other brings to the table.  I know that I have learned a great deal through our collaboration, and I hope that my partners would say the same. Combining the work of the two organizations has led to a much greater possibility than if either had moved forward alone.

Of all the projects we’ve done together, of which are you proudest, and why?
I am proudest of the partnership itself, although there are several projects that have been highlighted.  One is the collection of case studies that SFSA’s Yuan Zhou and I designed to assess how national legal systems interact with regional rules. This method of combining economic and legal analysis and focusing on national implementation has filled an important gap. We see the impact both in actual changes to national systems and in more holistic assessments.  These case studies also led to some of the work on the Check Back Mechanism. The licensing work has been rewarding because it addresses a concrete local need and is an important vehicle for capacity-building.  

What led you to found NML?
I thought that more substantial work was needed to compare legal and regulatory systems across countries and regions, particularly to benefit vulnerable stakeholders like smallholders and make markets more inclusive. NML focuses on the legal and regulatory dimensions of markets and economic development. It can therefore contribute to diverse partnerships and create opportunities for early-career lawyers – a priority of mine as a professor. NML was founded in 2010, a mid-career for me. It was based on a pilot called TransFarm Africa, which focused on agricultural transformation and regulatory change from the perspective of a farm in Tanzania. Under the new name of “New Markets Lab”, we became a center for the design and implementation of systems that could bring such on-the-ground learnings to scale.

What, for you personally, is the particular attraction of working on seed markets?
I am a trade lawyer and professor, so I often find myself comparing countries’ legal systems for larger, international lessons. With seed regulation, my personal interest comes from its impact on development and food security, the hope of detangling complicated rules, and the patterns that point to innovation and change.

You lead a very international group of experts. What are the secrets of successfully managing such a team? 
Leading a highly international team is something I would never want to give up, not even in exchange for a slightly more normal sleep schedule!  We are a close-knit team, and all have a great deal to learn from each other. Our interactions inspire NML’s approach: always work to understand context, listen to the experiences of others, and find value in differences. We work hard to put systems in place so that we can coordinate across projects and time zones. Above all else, I try to be the kind of manager I appreciated myself: prioritizing mentoring, creating team opportunities, and being decisive and strategic.  

Your name is very common in Germany, you originally did German Studies, and you were a German Marshall Fund Fellow. How would you describe your relationship with the local language at our Basel head office?
Yes, I studied German for many years and have lived in Austria and Germany. I appreciate the intricacies of the language: It’s detailed and precise, not too different from the legal language!  

What do you do in your spare time?
The pandemic showed me that a workday can last for 24 hours if one is not careful, and how incredibly important it is to carve out the spare time!  I have three young daughters, and I love spending time with them – biking, playing tennis, watching movies, and just listening. I have also recently embarked on a new outdoor cross-fit exercise program and am completely obsessed with this routine that gives me a break from work. I also love reading and can be known to watch both good and bad television!  

Katrin Kuhlmann is the president and founder of the New Markets Lab, a nonprofit law and development center; a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center; and a senior associate with the Global Food Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).