Fostering small farmers' access to quality traditional seeds

Seed Savers Network

Daniel Wanjama, Director of Seed Savers Network Seed, displays pumpkin at their seed bank in Gilgil.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • High-quality commercial seeds are costly and are only available for a few crops.
  • As challenges abound, farmers are coming together to push for reforms in the seed sector.

A stone’s throw away from Lake Elementaita, some 120 kilometres northwest of Nairobi in the Great Rift Valley, sits a one-storey, thick-walled mud structure with small, round basement windows.

Artificial lights illuminate the interior. The wooden shelves lining the walls hold layers of clear plastic containers. They contain seeds of various cereals, beans, trees and other plants, each identified by their scientific names. It seems innocuous, but the activities that go on here are illegal.

The building is one of the frontlines of a David and Goliath-like conflict that pits poor, small-scale farmers against a powerful government and majority-state-owned institutions. Stuck in the middle are Kenyan consumers. Their food security and the future of critical traditional African food crops depend on the outcome of this invisible war.

The building near Lake Elementaita serves as a seed bank for local farmers, a place where they can store seeds between harvests and planting seasons, and over the longer term. It enables them to not only protect their vital assets, but also exchange them with each other.

For generations, such seed-sharing among families and neighbours has been a key aspect of on-farm conservation, selection for diversity and the development of new crop varieties.

While this is tradition, it is also out of necessity. High-quality commercial seeds are costly and are only available for a few crops such as maize, beans and rice. There is a glaring lack of quality commercial seeds for other crops, such as wheat, green gram (mung beans), potatoes, cassava and yams.

As a result, the small-scale farmers that produced about 73 per cent of Kenya’s food in 2020, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, sourced over 80 percent of their seeds informally, as opposed to buying them from commercial seed companies.

But while age-old farming practices are central to livelihoods and food security, Kenya’s legal framework undermines them. Recent laws that limit farmers’ ability to freely save and share seeds threaten to push many traditional crops towards extinction and prevent farmers from adapting to climate change. As challenges abound, farmers are coming together to push for reforms in the seed sector.

The Kenyan government has a tight grip on the seed industry through both its regulatory framework and its partial ownership of seed companies that control significant shares of the market for seeds of crops such as maize and beans.

Commercial seeds are protected by the Crops Act, 2013 and the Seed and Plant Varieties Protection Act, 2012. Kenya is also a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, which was established to protect the intellectual property of commercial plant breeders.

These laws require farmers to buy their seeds from officially approved and registered stores. Other sources of seeds, such as a farmer’s previous crops, are illegal, as is any seed exchange between farmers.

Daniel Maingi, a plant geneticist and program manager at the Kenya Food Rights Alliance, an NGO that advocates for farmer-friendly seed regulations, says Kenya’s legal framework limits the ability of poor farmers to access quality seeds.

Seed Savers Network

Daniel Wanjama, Director of Seed Savers Network Seed, at their seed bank in Gilgil.

Photo credit: Pool

“Farmers must exert their right to their own seeds and to improve them whichever way nature sees fit,” says Maingi.

He adds that it is critical for farmers to be able to use community seed banks, and that the government should support this with tax revenues to protect farmers from the corporations that aim to control the seed market.

Maingi says Kenya should develop smallholder-centric regulations to foster farmers’ access to quality seeds, which he says is crucial for increasing production of staple crops such as maize, wheat and beans to boost food security.

“The government needs to move with speed to enact farmer-managed, seed systems-enabling regulations to protect genetic resources that belong to Kenyan communities, since they rely on them for their livelihoods,” he says.

Maintaining the biodiversity of indigenous crops varieties is about more than holding on to tradition. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of food crops has been lost since the 1900s, as farmers worldwide have replaced their diverse local varieties with genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.

It says that while more than 6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food, just nine of them account for 66 percent of all crop production. And only three — rice, maize and wheat —contribute nearly 60 percent of plant-sourced calories and proteins in human diets.

This lack of biodiversity is a serious threat to the world’s food supply, as genetic homogeneity exposes crops to outbreaks of pests and bacterial or fungal diseases.

The seed bank near Lake Elementaita was built by Seed Savers Network, a nongovernmental organisation that has set up seed banks in several Kenyan counties, and has created a network through which farmers can share seeds among themselves.

“Most of the seeds that we had kept here have already been taken by farmers for planting because this is a planting season,” says Daniel Wanjama, Director of the Seed Savers Network, as he shows the dozens of remaining seed-carrying containers left at the seed bank.

The farmers leave a portion of their seed savings at the bank in case of disasters such as fire, floods, pests and diseases, or other conditions that could wipe out their crops.

“This way, no matter what calamity happens, the farmer can always come back to take their spare seeds to plant again,” says Wanjama. “This is like their insurance.”