SEED SAVING

Banking on seeds to keep stomachs full

The fight to save disappearing indigenous seeds

In Summary
  • Some of the group members have learnt a lot such that they have become seed ambassadors, training farmers from different parts of the country.
  • Evelyne Ogutu, a food rights champion at the Route to Food Initiative, says there is need to conserve the biodiversity, as it is pivotal to food security.
Dominic Kimani, a research and Advocacy Officer at Seed Savers Network Kenya shows a maize cobs stored through smoking for seed extraction.
SEED SAVING Dominic Kimani, a research and Advocacy Officer at Seed Savers Network Kenya shows a maize cobs stored through smoking for seed extraction.
Image: LOISE MACHARIA

Vandana Shiva, a renowned Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, once said, “Seed is not just the source of life. It is the very foundation of our being. These words have come to be the clarion call for a group of women in the semi-arid part of Nakuru County.

Vexed by expensive farm inputs and especially seeds and buoyed by the drive to ensure they are food secure, groups of smallholder farmers in Naivasha and Gilgil are is changing the narratives on overdependence on agro-dealers and is charting a new path on seed independence.

For more than two years, several groups of mostly women and a few men in Naivasha and Gilgil Sub-Counties have been meeting weekly to discuss issues related to seeds.

Besides seeds, the small-scale farmers also learn and exchange ideas on how to agroecological grow their crops and ensure their food and nutrition security.

Some of the group members have learnt a lot such that they have become seed ambassadors, training farmers from different parts of the country and beyond on seed selection and saving.

One such member is Racheal Wanjira, a woman whose experience as a teenager drove her to resolve to ensure that she fends for her family and ensures it is well fed regardless of the status of her marital partner.

As Wanjira narrates, one time when she was in form two, she slept hungry because her father did not bring home maize flour that day.

INDEPENDENT WOMEN

“My dad was a good provider but on this one day, he did not get money and it really hurt me that mom was not empowered to supplement, it was at this early age that I made a resolve to always be in a position to feed my family,” she says.

The chairperson of Karamaru Seed Savers Network says the assurance of having seeds at all times at her individual seed bank and the one owned by the community is a great relief and a guarantee to food security and nutrition.

Karamaro Seed Savers Self Help Group chairperson, Rachel Wanjira training farmers on seed saving at Langa Langa area of Gilgil Sub-County in Nakuru.
SEED SAVING Karamaro Seed Savers Self Help Group chairperson, Rachel Wanjira training farmers on seed saving at Langa Langa area of Gilgil Sub-County in Nakuru.
Image: LOISE MACHARIA

In her smallscale seed bank, Rachels has 20 different varieties of beans, 10 types of pumpkins, seven of maize, four types of peas, chia and many types of indigenous and exotic vegetables.

Most of her stock is indigenous and neglected high value crops such as Njahi and pigeon peas, which have cultural attachment for the Kikuyu community, cassava, sweet potatoes, millet and sorghum.

Wanjira’s interest in seed saving started in 2018 when she visited a seed fair in Gilgil where she learnt that the country was quickly losing her native food crops, which were in the hands of small-scale farmers and their values.

“I also learnt that having seeds allowed farmers the latitude to plant on time regardless if they have money or not,” she says.

SEED SOVEREIGNTY

Pleased by what she learnt and buoyed by her will to impart and empower others, Wanjira could not keep the information to herself, she organized a meeting with locals and taught them the importance of seed sovereignty and what it entails including selection and storage.

After several meetings they formed Karamaru which is a short term for two farms namely Karai and Marua and also shared some of the seeds she bought at the seed fair with which they planted to monitor resilience and production.

A similar story is narrated by members of Kikopey Seed Saving Self Help Group in Gilgil who say they have reaped the benefits of practicing zero-budget farming whereby they buy nothing from the agrovets to use on their farms.

Group chairperson, John Wainaina says the community, especially women are more empowered because they can produce for their families and even get surplus for sale without spending money through seed saving and organic farming.

A section of Seed Savers Netwok Kenya seed back in Elelmentaita, Nakuru County.
SEED SAVING A section of Seed Savers Netwok Kenya seed back in Elelmentaita, Nakuru County.
Image: LOISE MACHARIA

“Farmers save and exchange seeds, use compost or animal dung as fertilizers and make plant-based concoctions, ash, soil and diatomaceous for pest control to grow chemical-free produce and has no side effects to the consumers,” he says.

PEST MANAGEMENT

He adds that after studying pest and knowing what they like in terms of sex and species, farmers in his group ensure full biodiversity on their land with scent suckers among food crops and fencing hedges with different flower colours to distract pests.

“Farmers especially women are liberated through seed saving and agroecology because they are practicing zero-budget farming, no money is spent yet they plant and harvest great yield sufficient to sustain their families and sell the surplus,” he says.

The group’s assistant secretary, Judy Waitherero says previously, members were suffering because they used to pant late due to lack of money for seeds.

“Most of the small-scale farmers used to do menial jobs, planting on other people’s farms in order to get money for farm inputs, this would result to late planting and of course poor yields and the poverty cycle would repeat every year but now we are free,” she says.

She observes that the use of traditional knowledge has saved needy farmers who could not buy seeds, fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides from agrovets.

Waitherero says the group is expanding because it invites neighbours during their weekly meetings to not only join but learn the benefits of agroecology.

A member, Lucy Wanjiru says she selects her seeds soon after harvest and deposits it at the community seed bank, away from the home to beat the temptation of either eating or selling it in times of need.

“Kikopey is semi-arid and because of soil conservation and organic farming, I get better yields compared to those who use chemical-based fertilizers and insecticide, I harvest 21 bags of maize while my neighbour got around 15bags from a similar portion of land,” she adds.

ORGANIC MARKETS

Wanjiru asks the government and Non-Governmentatal organisations that support chemical-free farming to establish special markets for organic produce.

“Members are working extra hard to ensure they produce f clean food while at the same time protecting the biodiversity but our goods are bought at the same price with the chemical-laden ones because there is no way for consumers to tell the difference,” she says.

Seed saving educational poster done by Route to Food Initiative.
SEED SAVING Seed saving educational poster done by Route to Food Initiative.
Image: COURTESY

Wanjiru adds that such a food store would also protect organic farmers from exploitation by brokers.

Evelyne Ogutu, a food rights champion at the Route to Food Initiative, a programme under the Heinrich Boell Stiftung, says there is a need to conserve biodiversity, as it is pivotal to food security.

“Seed is sacred and there is need to ensure we do not desecrate on the plant genetic that provides us with nutrients by bequeathing the responsibility agro-industrial dealers with a false hope of high yields,” says Ogutu.

According to her, smallholder farmers have for many years saved and exchanged seeds as per the needs of the local environment. This process of exchange of seeds among farmers has ensured that farmers conserve the plant genetics and passing knowledge, traditions, customs and culture from one generation to another.

RECOGNITION PETITION

Ogutu, who is also the RTFI Brand and Media Coordinator, further calls on the government to recognise the informal seed players in the legal and policy framework.

“The current national seed policy identifies various challenges affecting the seed sector and proposes several policy interventions, some of which recognise and seek to support the informal seed sector,” she says.

She observes that certain interventions appear to fight the informal seed sector and especially the farmers’ rights.

“The requirement that only seeds sourced from registered seed enterprises and of known quality can be offered for sale is among the interventions that appear to fight the informal seed sector,” adds.

SAVING INDIGENOUS SEEDS

Kenya has a problem with crop plant genetic resources as it solely depends on the commercial seed sector for diversity, an agronomist at Seed Savers Network Kenya Dominic Kimani has said.

Kimani, a research and Advocacy Officer at the organisation says indigenous seeds that farmers used to have are quickly disappearing while some have become extinct.

He observes that the disappearance of indigenous seeds would translate to growers being limited to the few food crops being produced by the conventional seed manufacturers and raises a critical question of whether the population has the freedom to control what it eats.

“When COVID-19 struck, the supply chains were affected and the distribution of seeds interrupted which means that if the population depends largely on what is brought to them, then they are food insecure,” says Kimani.

He said diversity assessment work in the last two years with the women groups in Naivasha and Gilgil on crop plant genetic materials owned by farmers found that there were 80 varieties while another 35 varieties were extinct.

He says the rate at which indigenous and neglected food plants were disappearing is alarming. Kimani says women have been recognised as seed custodians because of their contribution to agriculture and their need for food and nutrition security for their families.

WOMEN AND SEEDS

“Women are the custodians of the seeds, they work on the farms, they are the largest labour contributors and very active in agrobiodiversity conservation.

Kikopey Seed Saving Self Help Group chairperson, John Wainaina at his individual Seed Bank at Gema farm in Gilgil Sub-County in Nakuru.
SEED SAVING Kikopey Seed Saving Self Help Group chairperson, John Wainaina at his individual Seed Bank at Gema farm in Gilgil Sub-County in Nakuru.
Image: LOISE MACHARIA

Having seeds and other farm iiputs empowers them in terms of making decision on what to grow,” he adds

He says food and nutrition diversity can only be attained if the country and her population safeguard the genetic materials in the communities.

“Having multiple crops is like having a self-insurance mechanism because if one fails, the other with better resilience would survive and the family will have something to consume,” he notes.

Kimani says having a wider genetic pool is a strategy that helps the community adopt to climate change because not all crops are affected the same way.