Jameson Sithole grows maize on 15 of his 17 hectares in Chipinge, in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland Province. He grows small indigenous grains on the other two hectares. He says: “Maize has a commercial value, so I can sell it easily…. With small grains, it’s different. But l need to supplement my maize stocks when they run out, and feed my family during drought.”
In Zimbabwe, maize is king in the kitchen and in the fields. Zimbabweans consume at least 1.8 million tonnes each year.
Farmers tend to be less interested in growing small grains such as millet, cowpea, and sorghum. But these crops often cost less to grow and are more drought-resistant than maize. Also, inputs for indigenous grains tend to cost less than inputs for the hybrid maize sold in shops.
And now, new seed banks are helping farmers access and preserve these indigenous seeds.
John Misi is the Mudzi district administrator in the province of Mashonaland East. He thinks farmers are reluctant to grow indigenous grains because “maize is the staple food [in Zimbabwe] and people here are so accustomed to planting maize.”
A drought in 2016 led to Zimbabwe’s lowest maize harvest on record. A quarter of the population needed food aid.
In addition to their resistance to drought, indigenous grains tend to cost less in inputs than hybrid maize sold in shops.
Because they are less common, seeds for indigenous grains can be hard to find. Farmers can buy maize seeds at the market, but 95% of other seeds come from their own crops or those of neighbouring farmers. This further limits the number of farmers who grow indigenous grains.
To address the issue, a Harare-based NGO called Community Technology Development Trust created seed banks to make seeds of indigenous grains more widely available. The seeds are stored in small, dark rooms in the seed banks, sheltered from the heat. The seed banks function as associations and are run almost like a traditional bank. Farmers borrow seeds, which are often provided by the local community. After the harvest, they repay their loans plus in-kind interest.
Patricia Jameson Muchenje farms a small plot in Rushinga district, in Mashonaland Central Province, where she plants indigenous grains.
She says: “Here, we try to avoid the disappearance of small grains through our collective seed bank. We work, we learn from each other about the most appropriate seeds, and we use the best agricultural techniques.”
Marjorie Jeke lives in the neighbouring province of Mashonaland East. She feels reassured because she knows that the seed bank can help in case of hardship. She says: “In the event that there are floods and our crops don’t do well in the field, the seed bank will be useful, as I will go back to the seed bank and retrieve my seeds for free to replant…. I don’t have to struggle borrowing from neighbours, or to bother my children [about] money, because the seed bank has made it easier for us to survive as farmers.”
She adds that she and other farmers in her area hope to sell seeds from the seed bank and invest the earnings in income-generating activities such as market gardening or poultry farming.
A study by the international NGO, Oxfam, says: “Access to the right seeds at the right time, and for the right price, is critical to being able to produce enough food to eat in the face of growing climate disruption. Farmer seed systems and community seed banks provide an important safety net for cash-strapped, vulnerable people.”
Other seed banks are planned for Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. It costs about US$20,000 to set up a seed bank. According to an article published in April 2017 by a research journal called Development in Practice, a lack of long-term funding could threaten the survival of these seed banks, in a country where agriculture remains underfunded.
This story was adapted from an article titled, “Seed banks help Zimbabwe’s farmers tackle climate change,” published by IRIN at the following address: http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2017/11/07/seed-banks-help-zimbabwe-s-farmers-tackle-climate-change, with additional files from an article titled “Zimbabwe : 500 millions de dollars pour accroître la production de maïs,” which can be found at the following address: http://fr.africatime.com/zimbabwe/articles/zimbabwe-500-millions-de-dollars-pour-accroitre-la-production-de-mais
Photo: Seeds on display at Chimukoko Seed Fair. Credit: IRIN _Sally Kyakanyaga