There are no simple answers when it comes to predicting the future of African food systems. Across the continent, the push to commercialise African agriculture to feed the growing and urbanising population, increase incomes, and reduce poverty is well known. However, this ‘solution’ is also heavily criticised for its ineffective, inappropriate and misdirected approach for Africa. It not only neglects the significant role that farmers and farmers’ seed systems have played and continue to play in maintaining agricultural biodiversity and ensuring access to seed for smallholder producers; it also criminalises and replaces this system with corporate-controlled agricultural systems. This was evident in field research we did in Tanzania in August 2017.

Our trip started in mid-August when we attended a farmer seed workshop organised by ACB in partnership with MVIWATA in Morogoro. We hoped the workshop would give policy- and decision-makers something to ponder about, regarding the current state of affairs with farmers’ local varieties. In the recent past, government has shunned farmer-managed seed systems and local varieties, but the debate in the country still rages on. It did not come as a surprise when farmers stood up in the meeting to defend their local varieties, despite government’s lack of support. The sentiments shared by the farmers are being echoed elsewhere on the continent, as seen in a similar recent meeting in Mozambique.

Farmers want to use their own local varieties; they want them preserved and maintained, with improvements to meet their livelihood and nutrition requirements, but without losing their traits. There are many threats to farmer-managed seed systems and local varieties, but what stands out most are the government programmes and policies that are bent on doing away with farmers’ varieties and knowledge through introducing new agricultural technological packages. The driving objective is to increase smallholder farmers’ adoption of chemical fertilisers and corporate seed, so as to increase productivity and reinvest back to agriculture. As a case in point, despite the fact that almost 80% of seeds used in Tanzania – and in some crops as much as 90% – are produced by smallholders, who are the poorest and most vulnerable group, programmes encourage the indiscriminate use of imported, corporate seeds, most of which are hybrids, and synthetic fertilisers. In fact, the success of these programmes is measured on the quantity of fertilisers being distributed, which fails to acknowledge what takes place downstream, or the range of factors that contribute to agricultural production and livelihoods.

We explored one of these programmes, the National Agricultural Input Voucher Scheme (NAIVS) in the field. We travelled almost 2 000 kms by road from Morogoro to Mvomero, Babati and Makambako districts and back to Morogoro, conducting focus group discussions with smallholder farmers, extension officers and agrodealers. With the Uluguru mountains hovering over the town of Morogoro as our backdrop, we prepared for the trip. We wondered what it would be like to have a discussion with farmers on the national subsidy programme that has been running in the country. Although the streets of Morogoro town close to the market area were filled with all kinds of fruits and vegetables arranged on the sidewalk, mostly sold by women vendors, the busy urban dwellers were probably oblivious of the issues smallholder farmers grapple with when it comes to agricultural inputs. We approached two women selling tamarind fruits at less than a dollar per bunch. ‘Can we use this for planting?’ we asked. ‘You save the seed once you eat the flesh of the tamarind, then you plant them,’ replied one of the women. ‘Make sure you add manure and it will grow very well,’ advised another.

These ‘traditional’ practices, such as the use of manure, are sometimes disregarded, with proponents of industrial agriculture stating that the very low use of fertilisers in the country points to a need to increase usage for high food production. What they don’t mention is that smallholder farming practices like these have been feeding millions in Africa for many years. The journey Mvomero was an hour or so drive from Morogoro. We drove through a beautiful landscape, with a huge forest reserve and a mountain that overlooks farmers’ fields. There is a large sugarcane plantation on the way and also several rice irrigation plots on the road. There were not many crops in the ground as most crops, and in particular rice, were already harvested. Our discussions with farmers were quite different from what we had expected, though they were very similar to later discussions in Babati and Makambako. While farmers said they were happy to receive subsidised inputs, as these become much more affordable, it was unclear whether this is how they would want to be supported if they were given a choice. The Mvomero farmers generously gave us each a plate of delicious cooked cowpeas and rice. ‘What variety of rice is this?’ we asked. ‘This is SARO 5, you can tell from the aroma’, replied Aziza, one of the farmers who participated in the research. Luckily we also got a few kilograms of a local variety known as mbawambili from the mill to use back home.

Farmers who participated in the workshop in Morogoro said this local variety has good aroma. We then headed to Babati, in Manyara. Babati was lively, with a flurry of activity caused by the monthly market day. Our discussions with farmers here revealed how foreign companies, such as SeedCo and Pannar had captured the seed market in this area with their maize seeds. When we tried to find out if there were any local varieties, the farmers told us that these were no longer being used ‘thanks to the awareness on improved seed’. Fertiliser, however, was adopted at very low rates, as most farmers feared it would destroy their soils. The trip to Iringa took us through Dodoma. For kilometres on end, the land was so dry. MVIWATA’s driver, Mr Msinde explained that the region had not received any rainfall this year. We wondered how the farmers were surviving, and what crops they were planting – if any – during these harsh climatic conditions. What food were people eating, and what support, in terms of food supplies, was available to such vulnerable farmers?

We went through Makutupora Viticulture Research and Training Institute, and tried to get a glimpse of any GM maize being grown. This is where the confined field trials of the drought tolerant maize are currently taking place under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. The WEMA project has been touted as the solution to drought by providing varieties that can be cultivated under limited water conditions. Evidence, however, shows that there is no single trait in plants that can be used to counter the effects of drought and thus the project is seen as a trojan horse for the introduction of GM in the country. We wondered if it would be realistic to introduce maize in such a drought-stricken area. Surely there would be other local crops that grow successfully in this region and that farmers here have survived on during dry periods? So why not invest in sustainable farming practices, such as agroecology and the use of manure, which would really make a difference in the lives of these farmers, rather than introduce inappropriate GMO crops and technologies?

The final leg of the journey was to Makambako, where we had engaging interviews with farmers. As with other farmers we interviewed, they were quite happy that the government was supplying subsidised inputs – but the question still remains whether they would prioritise this kind of support, given the opportunity to choose. When asked to compare improved and local varieties, they said that the former sell very fast at the market but this is because of the lighter grain weight. Furthermore, this market is controlled by the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA), which is quite particular about purchasing improved varieties grown by farmers in the area. While some consumers prefer maize from local varieties, in the markets it was clear that improved, hybrid seed has seeped deeply into local agricultural practices.

A large proportion of hybrid seed of fruit, vegetables and grain cannot be reproduced from season to season. This illustrates the significant shift that has already taken place in Tanzania’s food and agricultural system. The three areas we visited – Mvomero, Babati and Makambako – each had their own uniqueness, despite the similarities in farmers’ opinions on input subsidies. Farmers were quite dependent on this system, even though they mentioned implementation challenges. It was not our place to dictate what farmers should do, however we couldn’t help feeling that the subsidy programme, among other programmes for farmers to adopt improved seed and technologies, has interfered with the farmers’ agricultural systems.

Farmers were quite uncertain about whether the subsidy programme was continuing, and whether they would continue to benefit. We asked farmers what would happen to them if there was no subsidy. Some farmers replied that they would go back to using their own local varieties – which begs the question whether these would still be around in years to come, given the current trend. Those farmers who could afford to, would buy the expensive improved seed and fertilisers from local agrodealers.

The short-term benefits for farmers who receive the subsidised input packages must be recognised, but the lack of sustainability, high costs to farmers of adopting this technological package, and ineligibility of the majority of farmers to participate in these programmes, brings into focus the long-term implications for farmers who become used to purchasing inputs every season. The negative impacts, with the ultimate loss and neglect of local varieties, degradation of soils, reduced farmer control and increased reliance on foreign, imported, expensive inputs make this system simply unjustifiable. Many farmers would like to be able both to access such inputs, as well as keep their local varieties and control access to their seeds. Many questions about how farmer-managed seed systems can co-exist with the formal seed system need to be discussed and addressed. At the end of the day, smallholder farmers will hopefully remain resilient, despite all, and will continue feeding millions in Tanzania and Africa at large.

African Centre for Biodiversity