Seed security for Africa's farmers

by Fulvio Grandin | 1 Oct 2003

Fulvio Grandin*

The World Food Summit of June 2002 was a catalytic event the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN). Our frustrations with government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's support for the genetic manipulation of agriculture inspired the ABN to get organised to represent and support sustainable practices for food security. ABN's position was clear: seed and food security are inseparable for small-scale farmers throughout Africa, as the informal agricultural sector is largely dependant on an informal seed sector for its genetic resources. In both established and emerging farmer communities there are strong technical and cultural traditions of seed saving and distribution that not only support food security but also form and uphold much of the foundation of cultural practice and identity. Added to this is the crucial role of traditional farmers in the preservation and improvement of food crop varieties.
Any strategy to attain food security therefore needs to address the key issues around seed - access to and availability of seed, sustainability of the means of production, cultural and ecological diversity inherent in agriculture and the independence of farmers. All these issues are potentially compromised by the new wave of corporate control of the global seed industry and farmers need to be supported. To this end, the ABN Seed Security Programme was launched with formal participation of a number of African NGOs and the support of the Gaia Foundation and GRAIN.
As a first step, a Seed Security Study was conducted in various countries by local ABN member organisations. The objectives of the study were to gather country information on the status of informal sector seed activities and on the key players that could then affect and participate in broader programs; and to engage with farmers and community groups in order to best capture and represent their experience and vision and to build capacity locally to strengthen and consolidate local partnerships. The study, conducted from January till June this year, included Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia. Mozambique has recently been included and is currently conducting its study. This was a vital step for the ABN as the research phase served to initiate our activities as a network and to develop the working relationships we could then build on to broaden our scope and develop and promote the type of agriculture most appropriate for Africa.
The key findings of the initial research were shared at an ABN workshop in Nairobi, Kenya in June and can be summarised as follows:

The well-established and evolved practices of seed saving and distribution amongst farmers have supported informal agriculture and food security for generations. Tied to this is a wealth of traditional knowledge shared within communities.

This informal sector has played a significant role in the preservation and development of open-pollinated food crops.

There are important links between agriculture and seed selection with cultural practices and identity.

A high diversity of food crop seed empowers farmers with choices to mitigate environmental hazards such as drought and disease.

The independence of the informal seed sector allows it to adjust accordingly to both external and internal influences.

These valuable practices of small-scale farmers are often compromised because the informal agricultural sector is typically not afforded the institutional and economic support systems extended to formal or commercial agriculture. In most African countries, insensitive and inappropriate government policies and pressures from the commercial sector consolidating its control over agriculture threaten farmer livelihoods and associated cultural biodiversity. In the modern context it is critical for African communities to influence the policies and programs that shape their socio-cultural, economic and natural environments. It is within this framework that the ABN has developed its Seed Security Program.
How is the ABN planning to achieve this?


Through the development of networks that increase the participation of the informal seed sector and its support structures in strengthening seed security at household and community level.


To increase the capacity of these networks and of small-scale farmers to enhance both the diversity and the productivity of their seed and thereby the robustness of informal seed systems.


To act as a catalyst for wider action by increasing the commitment of NGOs and government to support this sector.

ABN has now compiled a three-year program that engages with local organisations in on-the-ground activities with farmers and farming communities. The framework provides an outline for country groups to decide on and develop their own projects based on the findings of and the partnerships developed through the seed study.

*Fulvio Grandin is Coordinator of the ABN Seed Security Program. He can be contacted at

Author: Fulvio Grandin
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