The 7th annual West Africa Peasants’ Seed Fair, hosted by the West African Committee for Farmers’ Seeds (Comité Ouest Africain de Semences Paysannes ­– COASP), was held in Zoungbonou, Benin, from 9-11 March 2023, bringing together 75 exhibitors from 25 countries, predominantly from the West African community but also including farmers from East Africa, government officials and academics.

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The theme of the fair was, Food Sovereignty: People’s Rights in the Face of the Rise of Genetically Modified Organisms in Africa, with the objective ofstrengthening movement building for the promotion of farmer-managed seed systems (FMSS) and mobilisation against the entry of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into food systems on the continent.

Specific objectives  of the Fair included:

  • Engaging CSOs, researchers and policy makers on issues related to the protection of peasant seed systems and peasants’ rights to seeds as a guarantee of food sovereignty.
  • Raising awareness of the legal instruments that can be used to contain the spread of GMOs, to avoid privatisation and loss of crop biodiversity.
  • Gaining a collective understanding of GMOs and new developments and changes in the field.

With support from the ACB, two farmers from Zimbabwe attended the Seed Fair. They are Simbisai Machave, trained by Mwenezi Development Training Centre (MDTC) and part of the Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM), and Ngoni B. Chikowe, a member of the Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmers’ Forum (ZIMSOFF). In this blog, they reflect on their experiences.

Farmers were given stands to exhibit the range of seeds grown in their communities and to facilitate and enable exchanges, thereby promoting the retaining especially of lost farmers’ varieties. The Zimbabwean booth was a hive of activity, where more than 80 diverse seeds were on display. Machave explains that overall, the fair gave government officials and other professionals a glimpse into the treasure trove of diverse seeds in farmers’ seed systems, and the extensive knowledge that farmers possess in regard to the conservation and sustainable management of local seeds and farmers’ food and seed systems.

In addition to the seed exhibits, the fair was comprised of demonstration workshops centred on: diverse and delicious cuisine using indigenous crops, agroecological biodiversity, and organic fertilisers and pesticides, among other topics. Further to this, rich and vibrant plenary workshops included discussions on:

  • The status of GMOs in Benin, West Africa and globally;
  • Farmers’ Rights, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITGRFA) and other legal tools and instruments; and
  • How peasant agroecology can ensure food security and sovereignty for people.
 Simbisai Machave displaying traditional seeds during the West African Peasants Seed Fair
Ngoni B. Chikowe and Simbisai Machave

Chikowe comments: “African seed and food systems are at a crossroads, as traditional seed systems are fast vanishing and being eroded because of the expansion and intrusion of industrial agriculture, which is foisting false solutions to the seed and food systems crises in Africa, such as corporate-owned hybrid and GM seeds and food, which has resulted in deepening inequalities, resource extraction and food insecurity.

“Africa is rich in seed diversity but starvation is the order of the day, where agribusiness from the North, dump hybrid and GM seeds on Africa and convince African countries to grow cash crops for export, at the expense of producing food to feed Africans. Food aid will be the result of growing what we don’t eat and eating what we don’t grow.

“The agroecology movement is emerging fast to correct this corporate controlled agrarian regime, hence the importance of such a fair that provides safe spaces for farmers from different African regions to come together and share the struggles of their regions. It also provided an opportunity for us to discuss how we respectively work to create spaces and influence our governments to recognise and support FMSS and agroecology as an alternative to industrial agriculture, to achieve African food sovereignty. The Fair also demonstrated how national governments can be brought into these important conversations. “

As with many other countries, smallholder agriculture seed systems in Zimbabwe have become dominated by the commercial seed sector, which distributes standardised and certified seed on an annual basis.

Machave further explains: “The government entices farmers into using corporate seed, through farm input subsidy programmes, yet these provide limited quantities of seed and range of crop varieties. Thus, peasant farmers resort to the use of seed from their own seed systems, which are retained from the previous harvest or acquired through local exchanges.”

“This visit was productive and is a positive step for us as peasant farmers, towards building a strong and sustainable seed system for farmers in our local districts. We are wholly committed to strengthening peasant farmers’ access to diverse, locally adapted seed and continue to work towards achieving the remarkable ideal of sustainable food production systems, through informal, community-based seed production.”

Simbisai Machave and Marie-Crescence Ngobo of the Réseau des Acteurs du Développement Durable -RAAD, Cameroon, testing beer made from sorghum.

Integrating the lessons learned

Both Machave and Chikowe intend to share the knowledge they gained on seed selection and production, as well as recipes, with their farming communities in Zimbabwe, which will add value to the work of their respective organisations and farmers in their networks. Attending the seed fair also allowed them to establish new connections and networks for potential cross-regional mobilisation for the recognition of FMSS.

“I felt honoured to participate at such a high-level gathering and am challenged to motivate other farmers to join me in on-farm seed saving for a number of crops that contribute to food security. I am currently working with a group of 58 farmers who have been trained in seed saving and will, I believe, improve their seed collection and multiplication skills. I will continue working with MDTC as a lead farmer, and hope to engage more farming groups in sharing knowledge and training in the Mwenezi district and beyond,” says Machave.

African governments must contribute 10 to 15% of their budget to agriculture

For agroecology to be economically viable and thereby ensure food sovereignty, a strong recommendation came out of the fair that governments should allocate 10%-15% of their national budgets to supporting agriculture, particularly in the context of skyrocketing food prices, and in the context of threats posed by extreme weather events, conflicts, and wars, among other factors. “Agricultural Ministries should establish extension services that support agroecological methodologies and practices, and incentivise farmers to increase seed production within FMSS, Chikowe argues.

Rich discussions flowed around these topics:

Community and farm-level seed production and saving is vital for improving diversity in peasant farmers’ production systems and access to varieties adaptable to respective agroecological regions.

  • Training on seed multiplication and quality control is needed, to encourage seed exchange among farmers to access diverse seed varieties.
  • Community seed banks established at local level encourages farmers to bring in seed for storage to protect loss of local varieties, based on the motto: “We eat bread, plant seed – seed is life.”
  • Community-based seed markets can be strengthened by establishing local markets.
  • Peasant farmers should be trained on effective in-field/ storage pest management to reduce biodiversity loss.
  • Common challenges include irregularities regarding seed quality since some peasant farmers have limited knowledge on: seed production activities; yield of selected crop varieties; and dealing with pests, including rodents, birds, and storage pests.
  • The performance of agroecological product value chains can be improved by setting up farmer associations.

Efforts at local, national, regional, and continental level need to be strengthened to advocate for the promotion of traditional, indigenous, and local seeds, including a focus on:

  • National level working groups to lobby for policies to protect indigenous and local seeds, and the rights of peasant farmers, and extension services are needed to promote the use of native seeds.
  • Certification of farmers for agroecologically produced seed.
  • Informal seed markets for agroecologically produced seeds and aggregation at strategic local business centres.
  • Marketing of agroecologically produced products through value addition, packaging, and branding.
  • Campaigns to raise awareness of the health benefits derived from organic foods and the promotion of farm seed saving for nutritious crops.
  • More inter-generational knowledge transfer through youth participation in FMSS.

Potential outcomes for Zimbabwe could include:

  • MDTC and PELUM partners to fundraise through its partnerships for more resources to support community-based FMSS.
  • Elicit more government and partner support to increase training of trainers’ workshops and farmer field schools, to strengthen the production of indigenous and local seeds.
  • Government policy reform on production of agroecologically produced seeds and FMSS.
  • Farmer-led research and trials of agroecologically produced seeds.

Background and purpose of the West Africa Seed Fair

(Extracted and adapted from the COASP concept note for the Seed Fair)

COASP emerged out of regional movements in West Africa, which included seed fairs hosted in Djimini (Senegal) in 2007, then Niamey (Niger) in 2018 and then Tenkodogo (Burkina-Faso) in 2019. At the regional level, COASP members chose to have rotating fairs to put the spotlight on each respective COASP country in turn.

In West Africa, as in other parts of Africa and the world, knowledge about seed – the foundational element in food systems – forms the basis of grassroots economies, whereby peasant communities’ access and control of their seed guarantees food sovereignty and socio-economic and cultural stability, at various levels.

Seed is sacred in African peasant communities and also plays socio-cultural and therapeutic roles; for example, being used in rites and in the composition of remedies. Farmers also play a key role in conserving agricultural biodiversity, which is fundamental to responding to changing climatic conditions.

Peasant seed has come under threat in recent decades, with the promotion of Green Revolution technological packages in Africa, based on the dissemination of high-yielding hybrid seeds, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, that have detrimental consequences to crop biodiversity, seed autonomy and food systems. This has enabled the corporate sector to take over agricultural systems, driven by multinational seed companies, which hide behind national companies to make producers dependent on chemical inputs. Meanwhile, intellectual property rights legislation is limiting the customs and traditions of production and free exchange of seeds, knowledge and know-how, supported by the implementation of Plant Variety Protection (PVP) regimes and the development of exclusionary seed trade laws that favour ‘improved varieties’, through the involvement of three regional bodies – the African Intellectual Property Organisation (OAPI), its English counterpart, the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This was the case in the Republic of Benin, with several attempts by the government between 2017 and 2019 to introduce into legislation a copy and paste law, based on the corporate seed International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1991 regime.

The release of Bt cowpea (with Bt cassava perhaps next) ­– the first GM food crop to be released in West Africa – poses a major threat to the FMSS and diversity at the heart of cowpea diversity. This has been met with an unprecedented and skilfully organised mobilisation by civil society to block this project and subsequent initiatives, with reference to national and international law. This is encouraging further multi-actor initiatives, involving farmers, lawyers, and public decision-makers, around the cause of preserving FMSS.

Farmers’ seed fairs, whether at the local, national, sub-regional, or international level, are a mobilising and unifying tool for sustainable family farming actors. National platforms are gradually being set up to ensure advocacy and mobilisation at the level of each country and to strengthen the work at the regional level.