When Peninah Ngahu was a child, her mother used to select the healthiest and largest maize, millet and sorghum seeds from the harvest and position them above the fireplace. There they would dry out and gain protection from fungal and insect attacks, ready for use in the planting season.
“The smoke and wood ash always sufficed,” she says. “The harvests were good, and we had a variety of food in plenty.”
After getting married, Ngahu, now 54, followed her mother in becoming a farmer, but she largely used synthetic inputs such as chemical fertilisers, as well as hybrid seeds produced by companies.
In 2018, the price of these seeds proved too costly for Ngahu. “Accessing [commercial] seeds and other inputs was never easy,” she recalls. “In the absence of money, there was no planting, hence no food for the family.” So Ngahu decided to ditch synthetics, return to organic inputs, and use locally sourced seeds as her mother had.
Such seeds, which Kenyan farmers often refer to as “indigenous”, can withstand local conditions such as short rainy seasons and be grown without chemical inputs, Ngahu explains. “Indigenous seeds are not prone to pests and disease attacks, and even without enough rains, one can still harvest something,” she tells China Dialogue.
Ngahu obtained those seeds from her community seed bank – a place where seeds can be informally exchanged and stored for future use. Kenya has seen a proliferation of such facilities in recent years due to a 2012 law that prohibits farmers from freely selling seeds. Experts say the law has been a cause of food insecurity in the country.
How seed banks can improve food security
Food and nutrition insecurity is a problem for many Kenyans, especially in the arid and semi-arid regions that make up 80% of the country. In eastern Kenya, the long rains that usually fall between March and May have been drying up as a result of climate change.
The country’s main crop – maize – accounts for 85% of cereal production, but has been hit both by increasing droughts and fertiliser supply shocks; between 2020 and 2021, fertiliser prices increased by 50-60%.
As for wheat, Kenya is a net importer, producing 350,000 tonnes per year, and consuming 900,000. Russia, Kenya’s biggest wheat supplier, accounted for 31% of all wheat imports between October 2020 and October 2021, but erratic weather patterns as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have caused supply issues.
For the East African country to cushion its population against food insecurity, it must prioritise smallholder farmers like Ngahu, and shift to climate-resilient practices such as organic farming, says Daniel Wanjama, founder and CEO of Seed Savers Network Kenya.
“For Kenya and Africa to be food sufficient, we must allow the smallholder farmers – who are the majority – to take their space within the food system,” he says. “This includes having control and absolute use of our indigenous seed varieties.”
Community seed saving
In Kenya, the majority of seeds used by smallholders are exchanged between farmers through informal systems. But these systems are being put under pressure by the Seed and Plant Varieties Act (2012), which only allows certified seed companies to multiply and sell seeds. Farmers are only legally allowed to buy seeds from these companies, their distributors or agents.
According to Douglas Kangi, the agriculture ministry’s director for crop resources management, the law’s main objective is to uphold seed safety and quality. “This law is good for the farmer because it protects the farmer from buying deleterious seeds,” Kangi tells China Dialogue. “Through this law, we have established regulations that guide seed treatment and testing, and this is crucial in the management and control of plant diseases and their spread through sale of seeds.”
The law requires that all individuals or companies engaged in seed production or selling be registered. Locally sourced seeds are not classified as certified and so cannot be packaged, branded and sold within the formal seed market system, Kangi explains.
Community seed banks, he says, can only engage in the “storage and preservation of seeds” but not in their production, patenting or sale, unless they are certified to do so.
But the high prices set by agribusinesses make certified seeds hard to access for rural smallholders. The law’s restriction of seed multiplication has also resulted in food insecurity, especially among poor families. Community seed banking helps smallholders ensure they have a reliable supply of seeds for the next harvest season.
“The biggest problem was farmers approaching the planting season without seeds to plant because they had consumed everything they harvested the previous season,” explains John Wainaina, an indigenous seed ambassador.
Wainaina has been an ambassador since 2018, after receiving training from Seed Savers. He now manages five seed banks and works with 100 smallholders practising organic farming around Gilgil, where Seed Savers is based, 100km north of the capital Nairobi.
Seed banks also protect native plant species that are under threat. Wainaina says that at the banks, smallholders have been able to preserve at least 50 varieties of bean plant – including rosecoco, wairimu and mwitemania, which were on the verge of extinction.
Since 2009, Seed Savers Network Kenya has trained over 74,000 rural smallholders and worked with over 3,000 farmer groups spread over Kenya, according to Daniel Wanjama. The network has helped establish 54 community seed banks across the country, and documented 148 local crop varieties.
Testing and germinating local seeds
The seed banks ensure that the most viable seeds are shared with the community. As well as storing them, the seed ambassadors – together with experts from collaborating research institutions – test and germinate seeds, Wainaina explains.
At the end of each harvesting season, farmers hand the seed bank the varieties they wish to preserve. The seeds are mixed with ash, cow dung or soil, to keep pests away, before being placed in glass containers. During storage, their viability is tested every six months through trial germination of sample seeds. Farmers are not charged for seed storage, and are allowed to share or loan seeds, albeit informally, to other farmers.
Enhancing food security and climate resilience
Daniel Wanjama says that the farmer-managed seed system enables even poor smallholders to grow food affordably, enhancing food security for rural families.
“The seed is the beginning of the food system,” notes Wanjama. “With community seed banks, the poor farmer is relieved of the cost of buying seeds because they have their share within the bank. Being indigenous seeds, they also save on the cost of buying synthetic inputs.”
As part of their training, farmers learn how to spot and select the healthiest seeds from the harvest. After training, farmers take charge of the seed banks in groups. The network also offers them services such as pest and soil management.
The network has carried out a survey of indigenous seed-saving methods used by 20 Kenyan communities, and developed a booklet on these methods, which they are planning to publish online.
Grace Wambui, a farmer from Kiptagwany in Nakuru county, notes that her locally sourced seeds germinate faster than the commercial ones her neighbours plant. “Our seed bank has saved me from the trouble of running up and down to find seeds from shops,” she says.
Salina Chepsat is a seed ambassador and leader of the Endorois Indigenous Women Empowerment Network in Loboi, a village in western Baringo County. She explains that, “from seed banks, we are able to get seeds of all kinds of crops. This enables farmers to diversify.” Planting more than one crop enhances both food security and soil quality, Chepsat says.
Yet despite most native crops being able to survive drought and pests better than exotic species, as Wanjama points out, and their clear benefits to crop diversity and soil health, Kenya’s Food Security Policy of 2011 focuses heavily on maize, a non-native staple.
Limited by the law
Even as farmers across Kenya embrace community seed banking, the law is working against them. Wanjama cites the Seed and Plant Varieties Act and its associated policies as the biggest challenge facing seed banking in Kenya. “The law does not allow the seeds from the seed bank to be sold or moved freely, and that limits accessibility by the farmers, researchers or whoever is interested,” he explains.
The law also prohibits seed banks from producing or multiplying seeds, allowing only certified seed companies to do so. Wanjama says they are pushing for the law to be reviewed to allow farmers through seed banks to multiply, brand, package and formally sell seeds.
Meanwhile, a group of farmers, supported by Greenpeace Africa, have filed a case in court calling for the government to amend the law so farmers can sell seed. A source at the agriculture ministry told China Dialogue that the ministry could not comment on the case because as it still active.
Elizabeth Atieno, a food security and nutrition campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, says there is an urgent need to amend the act to protect small-scale farmers, which includes ensuring they have easy and affordable access to seed. “Indigenous seeds, resilient by nature, are the cornerstone of crop diversity and our defence against water and food scarcity and changing climate,” she notes. “Embracing them paves the way for sustainable food systems.”