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Victoria's Not so Secret Seeds

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Queen Victoria is still remembered, at least by name, in Uganda. The great lake - one of the largest in the world - bears her name. So do many restaurants, shops and enterprises in Kampala and Entebbe. One such is Victoria Seeds, created in 2004 by Josephine Okot one of a new breed of young African entrepreneurs who I met in Kampala last week.

Every keen gardener in Britain knows that seeds matter. Their diversity and quality are what make our gardens a delight that is worth all the back breaking effort. For small farmers in Africa they are crucial to realising a sustainable livelihood. The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which permitted food production to more or less keep pace with population growth, was built on new seeds that germinated to create high yielding, semi-dwarf wheats and rices.

In Sub Saharan Africa where environments are so diverse, the emphasis is now on variety. As Josephine Okot has demonstrated, African farmers will pay for crop seeds providing they will reliably germinate, be suitable for the local environment, produce high yields, be resistant to pest, diseases and weeds, and be tolerant of the increasing droughts that affect much of Africa. Victoria Seeds markets over 90 seeds. Some are imported but others are multiplied from the company's stock in Uganda by over a 1,000 contract farmers, very many of them women.

Josephine Okot is an Acholi woman from northern Uganda who grew up during the turbulent times of the insurgency by the Lord's Resistance Army. I visited Gulu during the height of the fighting to meet with President Museveni, driving in an armoured convoy from the airstrip to the camp, an earthen fort with tanks on the ramparts. We talked then about food security. He is a breeder of Ankole cattle, prized for their magnificent horns, and we discussed the promises of modern plant breeding. He was enthusiastic about the potential of different forms of biotechnology to produce new seeds to combat the pests and diseases that take such a toll of farmer's yields. He subsequently opened a biotechnology laboratory.

Getting started was hard for Josephine. She studied at Makerere University Business School and after some tough experience in the private sector decided to set up her own company. To begin with she could not raise the funds she needed. Despite offering to mortgage her house, private banks would not take her on - they claimed that agricultural enterprises were just too risky. A public sector fund proved highly inflexible, but eventually USAID's Agricultural Productivity Enhancement Program provided a guarantee to a bank and she had the funds she needed. Growing her company and overcoming many obstacles has made her even more sensitive to the challenges that small farmers in the region face, whether from extreme weather conditions - floods and droughts - or rapid fluctuations in market prices. It is this empathy with her customers coupled with a strong business sense that has made her so successful.

Josephine Okot spoke about her experiences on Sunday 13th November at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's 2011 discussion forum on 'African Agriculture: from meeting needs to wealth creation' in Tunis.

Sir Gordon Conway is professor of international development at Imperial College London. He directs Agriculture for Impact, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. His book A Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World Sustainably? will be published by Cornell University Press in 2012