Another case of competition between SoEs and the Private Sector?

The Department of Agriculture (DoA) has unveiled a plan to gradually privatize the distribution of seeds and seedlings across the nation. This move comes as the DoA seeks to encourage private sector participation in the agricultural supply chain. However, private seedling enterpreneurs are not happy.

The DoA has initiated the process by inviting expressions of interest (EoI) from seed and seedling companies interested in taking up this responsibility. Consultation meetings have also been held with these companies to gauge their readiness and capacity for seed and seedling supply.

Thinley Namgay, chief agriculture officer at the DoA, revealed that the private sector has shown a willingness to supply seeds and seedlings that are economically viable. However, they are reluctant to provide less profitable varieties due to limited capacity and facilities.

To address this, the DoA has decided to privatize the seed and seedling supply gradually. “As the private sector builds its capabilities, the government’s role in supplying seeds through agencies like the National Seed Centre (NSC) will be diminished and eventually phased out,” the officer added.

Promoting the private sector is a top priority for the government, according to the Chief Agriculture Officer. Some private seed companies in Bhutan already engage in seed and seedling businesses, either through in-country production or imports from other countries. Given their potential and capacity, the DoA believes it is the right time to fully privatize seed and seedling supply to bolster the growth of private seed companies in the country.

While the government will not provide financial support due to budget constraints, it will offer technical assistance, including training on seed and seedling production and certification. The DoA will also monitor and assess the quality of seeds and seedlings supplied by the private sector to ensure that farmers receive high-quality products.

This transition is expected to benefit private sector seed businesses as the government phases out its involvement, creating opportunities for private enterprises to sustain their operations. “However, farmers may have to pay slightly more for seeds and seedlings, as private companies will charge commercial rates, unlike the current subsidized prices offered by the NSC,” the offier further added.

Kuenzang Om, deputy chief agriculture officer said that this decision aims to promote private sector engagement in agriculture and alleviate the burden on the NSC. “The private sector has also been entrusted with a project to plant a million trees, further supporting their role in Bhutan’s agricultural landscape.”

However, private enterprises have expressed limitations in taking up all commodities due to financial constraints, competition with NSC, and issues related to audit obligations. The DoA has assured that it will continue to regulate the quality and safety of seeds and seedlings, and explore policies addressing audit obligations between the government and private enterprise suppliers.

Meanwhile, the owner of a private nursery said that they accepted the offer and expressed their confidence in meeting the expectations of the DoA and the farmers, but they are not able to take all the commodities offered by the DoA other than existing ones. The individual said that they have been supplying seeds and seedlings of various crops, fruits, and vegetables, especially asparagus seeds, to domestic consumers.

The private nursery owner said that due to competition from the state owned enterprise (NSC), its business is hampered as NSC offer the seeds at a low price and transportation costs are borne by the government, among others.

Additionally, an individual shared that due to audit obligations; it impacts their market as gewogs and district administration refuse to accept their products due to their high cost. An individual also added that NCS is supplying certain commodities imported from India that can be easily manufactured or produced by private enterprises and supply them at low prices.

Another private farm also said that they had interest and was willing to supply the seeds and seedlings.

However he said, “Because of no funding support (except for one or two  green houses and mother plants for Geenbank) and the stoppage of agricultural loans from the Bhutan Development Bank Limited (BDBL), we are restricted to taking all the commodities by these factors, among others.”

He also said, “The DoA is offering based on the expression of interest, but we are not able to take up all offered commodities except the existing production supply due to the financial crisis.”

The DoA also assured that they will continue to regulate the quality and safety of the seeds and seedlings in accordance with the Seed Rules and Regulations of Bhutan. They are also willing to look into the policy of audit obligation between the royal government of Bhutan and private enterprise suppliers pertaining to the differences in prices between private suppliers and NSC.

Nidup Lhamo from Thimphu