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Powerful crops – empowering farmers through community seed banks in South Africa

At the first ever held seed fair in Mutale, Limpopo province, South Africa. Credit: Bioversity International/R. Vernooy
At the first ever held seed fair in Mutale, Limpopo province, South Africa. Credit: Bioversity International/R. Vernooy

Bioversity International scientists, Ronnie Vernooy and Bhuwon Sthapit, join the South Africa Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries in Limpopo and Eastern Cape to study of feasibility of seed banks to strengthen informal seed systems. 

South Africa is one of the first countries in the world to support community seedbanks through a national policy.  As part of a feasibility study to understand better the role of seedbanks in strengthening informal seed systems, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries invited Bioversity International scientists, Ronnie Vernooy and Bhuwon Sthapit, to join them in Limpopo and Eastern Cape. 

The context

In Limpopo and Eastern Cape in South Africa, farmers live and work under tough conditions. Rainfall is low, and in the mountainous areas in Eastern Cape, the climate is cold and windy as well. Farms are difficult to access and far from major markets, yet farmers still manage to produce food not just for subsistence, but also small amounts to sell. Crop and varietal diversity combined with diverse animal husbandry practices (cattle, sheep, goats) is central to their farming systems and to survival. However, in the last few decades, several crops and varieties have disappeared or their seeds have become hard to get.

Drought, climate change, crop failure and a lack of research support are just some of the factors placing smallholder seed supply systems under pressure —not just here, but all across South Africa as in many other countries. This pressure is resulting in crop genetic diversity loss, and it is reducing the number of seed quantities and plant varieties that are available to farmers.

Strengthening informal seed systems

Empowering farmers through strengthening informal seed supply systems, supporting the conservation of traditional farmer varieties, and maintaining seed security at district and community levels is no easy task. But thanks to the efforts of South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries (DAFF), change may be soon in the farmers’ hands.

A revised strategy for conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources for food and agriculture in South Africa has extended its focus from just ex situ national collections to also include in situ conservation – where biodiversity is conserved through use in the farmers’ fields.  This will be supported by community seedbanks — collective initiatives that empower farmers to use, exchange and conserve local and improved plant varieties for food security and improved livelihoods.

In Limpopo and Eastern Cape, farmers rely on combinations of a few major crops grown in large areas by most households, supported by a more diverse number of crops grown in small areas by just a few households. For example in Limpopo, large areas are sown with white and yellow maize, white sorghum, millet and groundnut, while some households maintain smaller quantities of vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, beans, cowpea, potatoes, melon and calabash, tobacco and many kinds of fruit. 

The researchers* asked farmers why they choose to maintain these crops. Answers related to cultural uses: their good taste and nutritious qualities (farmers used the word “powerful”), suitability for traditional dishes, and their value as the farmers’ heritage. Other reasons related to the farming system: resistance to droughts, pests and diseases, a short growing cycle, low need for fertilizers, long-term storage ability and suitability for inter-cropping.  

Mapping existing seed systems

The team also arranged seed fairs, carried out historical analyses of crop use, four-cell analysis for crops and crop varieties and seed network mapping.

They found that traditional seed exchanges continue to predominate in both regions, but vary considerably by village. Commercial purchase of seeds on a small scale is not uncommon (from other farmers, from street vendors, from cooperatives).

Seed networks vary by village. In a few villages they are dynamic and strong with many people giving as well as receiving seeds. In most villages they are weaker with not very many exchanges or with exchanges only made by some farmers. It seems that exchanges are mostly based on family, friendship and church membership.

In terms of distance, most exchanges are within the same village. In Limpopo, where many men work outside agriculture, women are the main actors in the seed network, while in Eastern Cape it is men.  

Next steps - a community seedbank

When asked about their interest in setting up a community seedbank to strengthen both conservation and exchange at village and provincial levels, the farmers in both sites responded positively.

Based on farmers’ responsiveness, the presence of a supportive extension agency and the possibility to connect with DAFF and the national genebank and research agencies, among other criteria, the study team has now recommended the establishment of a pilot farmer-led community seedbank in each site.  

Each seedbank would have an initial 3-year management and monitoring plan as well as supporting activities to ensure the community seedbanks are not isolated but developed as platform of social learning and community development —for example, incentives such as farmer awards for greatest efforts to maintain traditional crop and variety diversity;  diversity fairs to bring together seed holders and seed seekers from the municipality, villages, other provinces and the national genebank; and improved seed management and production kits.

*Joint study team included Bioversity International and the Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries of the Republic of South Africa, working in close collaboration with agriculture extension officials of the Limpopo Provincial Department of Agriculture, Mutale Local Agriculture Office and Eastern Cape Provincial Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform, Joe Gqabi Region.

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