Maria Mwanzia, a farmer from Kithendu region of Yatta, Machakos County, enjoys every drop of rain since this is a dry region. And so, the advent of the Elnino rains gave her a reason to smile. “I knew it was time to plant my maize and beans when I opened my door that morning and saw it had rained,” says Mwanzia, adding that the previous season’s harvest from her one-acre farm had been disastrous.
“I bought the seeds from Kimangu market, planted them and was waiting for a bumper harvest. But, that did not yield as I had expected. A bad harvest meant a hungry year,” recalls the mother of three.
Kithendu farmers, just like her, have become victims of unscrupulous seed dealers and the change in weather patterns has compounded their problem, leading to more starvation.
“Getting quality seeds is a problem; when you plant that maize, it grows up but never produces a cob,” says 67-year-old Mwanzia.
That picture has changed for better in the form of traditional gourds and a roughly built wooden cage locally known as Kiinga. This is the Kithio Kya Mawythululuko women group traditional seed bank run by a number of farmers.
The women group has enabled its members to have food and a livelihood through the facility.
Mwanzia is a member of the women’s group, which consists of elderly women aged between 50-70 years. The women’s group is made up of 10 sub-groups including Mutaki Kethyo, Kwa Nzisa, Wendano, Kaonyweni and Ndethye Ngutethye.
The seed bank has around 20 gourds, four of which Kiinga used for keeping maize, beans, sorghum pearl millet, pigeon peas, finger millet, green grams and cow peas.
Available data shows that Kenya only takes about five per cent of seed market in Africa, a figure that is far too low considering its potential. Grace Gitu, a technical officer with the African Seed Trade Association-Kenya, says that seed security is key in food security for any nation.
She reiterates that weak regulations and porous borders are causing an influx of counterfeit seeds in the country. “Fake seed is real and a great danger to the seed industry in Africa. Africa loses millions of dollars due to counterfeit seed trade contributed. We need to put high penalty for people selling counterfeit seeds to small holder farmers,” says Gitu.
There is a new initiative by the Institute of Culture and Ecology aimed at strengthening the promotion of indigenous knowledge and practices relevant to environmental rehabilitation and management of seed banks. It is a lifeline for many farmers affected by the vagaries of climate change like Mwanzia.
Francisca Mbuli Kitheka, a lead farmer with the ICE project, says farmers from this region are now enjoying seed sovereignty. “Farmers are now able to save, breed and exchange seeds. The women group has created a method of seed selection, seed saving and storage in response to the growing unavailability of quality seeds. This seed bank has made a big difference,” says Kitheka, adding that she has trained the women group on seed selection.
Mwanzia says that when the rains came, she didn’t waste time searching for seeds at the market like before, she got her share of seeds from the seed banks. However, farmers have to return twice the amount when they harvest their crops in a bid to maintain seed security.
The group has employed the use of traditional methods of pest control for quality and safe seeds. “We use dry goat’s droppings, and burn them for one day until it turns to ash. After that, we put the mixture in a bucket and sieve-so that we get a soft mixture. We also add ground chilli to the soft mixture-because it is too bitter for weevils and hence prevent them from affecting the maize seeds,” says Mwanzia.
The seeds are mixed with the ash and closed tightly inside the gourd and the wooden cage. Another precautionary measure is maintaining seed quality, which according to Kitheka, is done through monitoring and evaluation during planting season. “I make sure the farmers plant the seeds in a row or a well marked plot so that when bringing back the seeds to our bank, we get the same trait. Farmers are also trained on post-harvest techniques to curtail the emergence of aflatoxin,” says Kitheka.
Through savings from their table-banking model, the group is putting up a permanent house that will act as a seed bank. “The demand from our neighbours has encouraged us to look for a big store since the granary we have is too small to keep the seeds in large quantities. When this house is up and running in 2016, we will be serving many people from Yatta sub-county,” she adds.