– by Dr Stephen Greenberg
These reflections come from attending a farmer exchange in October 2022, hosted by the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Zimbabwe, in collaboration with Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organisation (TSURO) and Community Technology Development Organisation (CTDO). The 35 participants, including farmers, non-government organisations (NGOs) and government officials, converged in Harare from 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. From there, they travelled to two designated sites, Mudzi in Mashonaland East and then Chimanimani, Manicaland, in eastern Zimbabwe.
Across Africa, smallholder farmers produce most of their own seed requirements from season to season. Despite this, farmer seed systems receive scant recognition, with limited support for the diverse farmer practices of reproduction, adaptation and use that underpin agricultural biodiversity. Policies tend to favour commercialisation, economies of scale, and integration into global markets. However, amidst generalised ecological and social crises, there is growing recognition and a renewed appreciation of the multiple roles of smallholder producers in landscape and biodiversity maintenance and use, and in ecologically diverse and sustainable food production systems.
The objectives of the exchange were to allow participants to learn and share on farmer seed systems, to strengthen and link them with political work on recognising and protecting these systems, and recognition and implementation of farmers’ rights. Farmers showcased their experiences and knowledge in plant genetic resource management and multiplication to increase seed and crop diversity.
Chimukoko Community Seed Bank
In Mudzi in Mashonaland East we visited the Chimukoko Community Seed Bank (CSB), one of 22 CSBs that CTDO supports nationally, in partnership with farmers and government. In most places, CSBs are used as a backup store but farmers also keep their own household collections. Farmer field schools (FFS) are a key structure, allowing farmers to learn and share with one another in the field with technical input provided by NGOs and extension services. Farmers organised in the field schools, produce seed for themselves, for the seed bank and also for sale to enterprises such as Champion Seeds, a farmer-owned business. CTDO supports 170 FFS in Mudzi District.
A clause in Zimbabwe’s Seed Law says farmers can only sell or exchange “non-commercial” seed within a 40km radius. Farmer seed is not defined as seed in the law and may only be sold as food/grain unless it fully complies with commercial regulations. Efforts are being made to remove these restrictions to enable farmers to sell their own seed nationally or regionally. This includes efforts to find mechanisms to register farmer seed with its own specified standards so that these seeds are recognised, as well as to recognise FFS as seed producers.
Farmers use a diversity wheel to prioritise crops and varieties for production and saving. This starts with a group discussion to list all the crops in the community and to identify which are the most important to farmers and consumers. The discussion can include quality assessments of seed from different sources. A timeline analysis can be done to identify which crops were in the area over a longer period. This can allow farmers to identify crops that have been lost. Elders are crucial for this assessment as they have the historical knowledge of production in the area. Once key crops have been identified, locally used varieties of these crops are listed. Diversity assessments are required to be ongoing, as diversity may shift over time.
The diversity wheel is divided into five zones. Crops and varieties are then placed in each zone as relevant.
Crops in the “few farmers, small area” quadrant indicates these are under threat. If communities identify lost crops to be brought back, they can work with the gene bank or other communities to get materials for multiplication and use.
In Zimbabwe farmer committees manage production and quality control, with technical support from NGOs, private sector and government breeding, and extension services.
Seed production and storage techniques
Participants from different countries shared methods used for storing seed. A number of techniques are common across countries, including hanging seed over smoke to prevent pests, and storing with various natural preservation agents (e.g. ash, bay leaves, dried orange peels, neem, powdered chilli, tephrosia, diatomaceous earth, sand). Farmers variously store seed in bags, calabashes, plastic or glass containers, clay pots, wood or plastic barrels, heavy cloth, underground, and in small huts or granaries. Some seed may be stored in situ (e.g. cassava, okra).
Ideally, seed should be regenerated every season, especially if the seeds are old. Oil seeds with high moisture generally don’t store for long. Cereals have longer viability and can be stored for 10 years or more under good conditions. There is research showing rapoko (finger millet) germinating after 16 years in storage in Zimbabwe. The germination rate should be above 85%, and germination tests should be done before planting to make sure the seeds will grow. Participants discussed principles and techniques for quality seed production. These include:
- Rotating crops seasonally to prevent diseases and soil nutrient depletion
- Physical isolation or staggered planting times to prevent cross-pollination
- Soil fertility through adding organic matter to the soil
- Ongoing field monitoring’ harvesting at full maturity
- Not mixing seed from different production cycles, and
- Establishing farmer seed groups for learning and sharing
Chimanimani District seed fair
Exchange participants attended a district seed fair in Mhakwe, Chimanimani. Buyers purchase vouchers in different denominations and pay sellers with vouchers. At the end of the fair, sellers exchange the vouchers for cash. This allows for accurate recording of sales. Farmers are encouraged to record sales at their tables, with details of the buyer, type of seed purchased, quantities, and how much the seed was sold for.
Farmers established a seed marketing committee. Prices are set by farmers beforehand in discussion, and prices are announced before the start of sales. Prices ranged from US $0.50/tablespoon for some horticultural seeds to US $1/cup for some grains. Some exchange participants reflected that the prices were too low and undermined the value of farmer seed. However, low prices also benefit local farmers as they can reduce their input costs. Sellers have some flexibility for setting their own prices, especially for buyers from outside.
The seed fairs start at the level of household seed banks, with seed exchanges at ward level overseen by Agritex (extension services). Currently, 21 wards in the district have local seed exchanges. A number of wards are then clustered for further exchanges, with the top sellers identified for the district fair. This process selects for good quality sellers.
Participants indicated the importance of: regenerating traditional seeds, networking, increasing efforts to work with governments, and drawing from the lessons of the seed fair to implement in their own countries. The exchange reinforced confidence in the capability of smallholder producers to provide diverse, nutritious and culturally appropriate food to millions, day in and day out. However, they face increasingly difficult conditions and more can be done to strengthen smallholder initiatives on diversification, farmer seed, small grains and indigenous crops.
As humanity enters a more unstable future, support to enable more people to produce at least a share of local food needs themselves, becomes very important. Shaky international supply chains, economic models shaped to meet the needs of wealthy elites, at the expense of the resource poor, and excessively high input costs for conventional production point to the necessity for alternatives.
Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe have experienced these conditions longer than most. They have answered by increasing self-sufficiency, solidarity and efficient use of the resources they have available around them. In their responses and activities we can see the contours of alternatives to corporate peonage.
You can access more photographs taken at the farmers’ exchange by clicking here.