Issue 30 - Article 16

CRS seed vouchers and fairs in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Gambia

August 9, 2005
Paula Bramel, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture; and Tom Remington, Catholic Relief Services

Seed vouchers and fairs have gained widespread acceptance as an alternative to direct seed distribution in interventions to support agriculture recovery. Seed vouchers and fairs address the problem of lack of household access to seed following disaster or displacement. In doing so, they challenge the assumption that quality seed of preferred crops and varieties is not available to a community during an emergency. This article summarises the findings of detailed evaluations of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) seed vouchers and fairs in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Gambia.

CRS seed fairs work by providing vulnerable households with vouchers worth a specific cash value. These are exchanged for seed from eligible seed sellers, who then redeem the vouchers for cash from CRS at the end of the fair. The fairs are organised on a specific day, and in a specific location. The objective of the analysis described here was to (1) evaluate the impact of CRS interventions in the three countries; (2) evaluate the implementation process used; and (3) compile a list of specific lessons learned.

The findings of the evaluation

In their implementation, the programmes in all three countries utilised the CRS Seed Vouchers and Fairs Manual as the basic framework. The three-country programme identified a number of lessons learned from the first year’s work, and a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) identified key strategic issues to be addressed in planning and implementation.

The outcomes of the seed voucher and fair programmes are given in Table 1. All three country programmes successfully helped large numbers of beneficiaries to access local seed of diverse crops in areas heavily affected by drought. In all areas, enough local seed was available to meet the needs of these beneficiaries, despite initial assessments which concluded that there was insufficient seed due to a significant loss of crop production.

In all three countries, there was evidence of a short-term positive impact from the interventions on the area planted by participating households and on crop production. In addition, CRS/Zimbabwe was able to demonstrate a positive impact on food security and CRS/Gambia showed a positive impact on household seed security. The evaluation also found that, under normal circumstances, a local seed market operates in all three countries for all crops, with the exception of maize in Zimbabwe. The source of seed sold is local, and there is routine demand and specialised suppliers. The use of the seed voucher and fair approach allowed these seed sellers to operate normally. It also offered opportunities for new sellers to enter the market for the first time.


It is clear from the evaluations that the seed voucher and fair approach enhances livelihoods by building assets and strengthening social relations, institutions and organisations. From the evaluation, it emerged that seed vouchers and fairs strengthen a wide range of farm family assets (Table 2). They also significantly strengthened local seed systems, especially the role of local grain markets and traders in this dynamic and resilient system.

The seed fair approach also had an impact on social relations. Relief and development practitioners often struggle to ensure that women play lead roles in the process of relief and development work, and that they benefit through it. The seed voucher and fair approach builds on and strengthens the important role that women play in seed systems and in local markets. Between a third and a half of the voucher recipients were women: 48% in Zimbabwe, 45% in Gambia and 38% in Ethiopia. Women’s participation as seed sellers reflected their role in the market; women accounted for 19% of the sellers in Gambia, 20% in Ethiopia and an astounding 72% in Zimbabwe. The interventions also had a profound impact on CRS itself, its partners and some ministries of agriculture. Shifting from doing what we have always done (direct seed distribution) to a new and radically different approach was met with anxiety and sometimes resistance. However, upon implementation, the immediate feedback from participants (both beneficiaries and sellers) was enthusiastic, especially in comparison to their usual ambivalence over direct seed distributions.


Unlike a direct seed distribution, which is a rigidly controlled supply process, seed vouchers and fairs are demand-driven and fluid. The evaluation found that it was difficult for CRS and its partners to let go, step out of the process, and play a facilitating role. CRS and its partners had an instinctive distrust of the markets and lacked confidence in the ability of disaster-affected people to play active and incisive roles, and to make wise choices. Because of this, CRS was often quick to control seed prices or restrict farmer choice.


Seed vouchers and fairs shift the focus from problems requiring external assistance to opportunities to link farmers to markets. Successful seed vouchers and fairs increase confidence in, and knowledge of, seed systems and seed security, creating opportunities to support market seed sellers (especially women) to increase seed supply and quality, to facilitate farmers’ access to seed of new varieties from the formal seed sector and to identify and then support the crop value chains that underpin the livelihood security of farm families.


There are significant threats to the process of shifting from a top-down interventionist approach to a more nuanced demand-side approach. First, institutions that have invested in the commercial seed system support direct seed distribution. A second threat centres on the assumption that farmers’ seed – though produced as grain – is of good quality. Because this seed is not certified, seed regulatory agencies might act to prohibit its sale at seed fairs. A third threat concerns stagnation and deviation. CRS has publicly promoted seed vouchers and fairs as a means of getting off the ‘seeds and tools treadmill’. If not watched, there is a risk that seed fairs themselves may become another treadmill (albeit one that puts more cash into disaster-affected communities). Deviation from the principle of an open market and farmer choice can result from attempts to restrict who can sell at the fairs, or what can be sold (e.g. restricting the sale of maize deemed to be too susceptible to drought, for example). A fourth threat concerns security. Approximately $5,000 is paid out to seed sellers at the close of a fair. This significant cash transfer places seed fair staff at risk (this risk does not exist in direct seed distributions as these transactions are handled by banks in the capital cities). In conflict areas, there is an added risk in travelling to the seed fair, and congregating at fair sites.


Clearly, the strengths and opportunities of seed vouchers and fairs outweigh their weaknesses, and the threats they potentially face. CRS is committed to overcoming internal weaknesses and confronting external threats – the evaluation described here is one example of this. Seed vouchers and fairs cannot be thought of as a static product, but rather as an iterative process in a transition from disaster response to recovery and the long-term strengthening of agricultural livelihoods.

The seed fair approach has been a dramatic success for CRS in Ethiopia, Gambia and Zimbabwe. Seed vouchers and fairs have ‘raised the bar’ in seed-based agricultural recovery, and have placed disaster-affected communities on a better road to recovery and resilience. They have also strengthened CRS partnerships, made CRS a more credible agriculture partner with governments and donors, and set out a different development pathway from endemic risk to resilient recovery.

Paula Bramel is the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Director, Research for Development in East and Southern Africa. Her email address is: Tom Remingtonis an Agriculture Advisor at Catholic Relief Services. His email address is:

References and further reading

P. J. Bramel and T. Remington, CRS Seed Vouchers and Fairs: A Meta-analysis of Their Use in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Gambia (in press – contact Tom Remington ( for a copy).

P. J. Bramel, T. Remington and M. McNeil (eds), CRS Seed Vouchers and Fairs: Using Markets in Disaster Response (Nairobi: CRS East Africa, 2004).

CRS, ICRISAT and ODI, Seed Vouchers and Fairs: A Manual for Seed-based Agricultural Recovery in Africa (Nairobi: Catholic Relief Services, 2002).

T. Remington et al., ‘Getting Off the Seeds-and-Tools Treadmill with CRS Seed Vouchers and Fairs’, Disasters, vol. 26, no. 4, 2002, pp. 316–28.

L. Sperling, T. Remington, J. Haugen and S. Nagoda (eds), Addressing Seed Security in Disaster Response: Linking Relief with Development (Cali, Colombia: International Center for Tropical Agriculture, 2004).


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