Mrs. Grace Mwalabu lives in Chikalogwe, Balaka District, in southern Malawi. On a warm day, she stands smearing cucumber seeds on the outside wall of her kitchen. She explains, “It is our tradition. I smear them one or two metres from the ground. The advantage is that the seeds dry quickly, do not rot and survive the dry season.” These and other local vegetable seeds cannot be found in nearby markets.
Hybrid seeds are popular in some areas of Malawi. They often yield more than local varieties. But they are expensive. Farmers need to buy them every year, so they are dependant on seed companies and distributors. They know that saving local seeds from harvest is cheaper and more reliable than buying hybrid seeds every year. With local seeds, they can be confident that they will have seeds exactly when they need them.
FAIR Malawi is an NGO in Malawi that works on food security issues. The organization promotes traditional methods of saving seed and preserving food. Mr. Mahala Nyirenda works with FAIR Malawi. Talking about modern varieties, he explains, “The seeds of farmers’ choice are not readily available at the time when farmers need them and have money. This is forcing farmers to plant late.” If farmers plant late and the rains are poor, yields are badly affected. Mr. Nyirenda adds, “Farmers are now struggling to find money for seeds and food … We want farmers to be independent. We are encouraging them to choose those varieties of good quality − like early-maturing or high-yielding local varieties.”
Another way to develop independence from commercial markets is by preserving food. When the rainy season is over, vegetables can be grown only near rivers. These areas retain some of the moisture from the rains. Mr. Nyirenda says that in the past some extension officers discouraged farmers from preserving vegetables. But now FAIR Malawi is encouraging farmers to dry leafy vegetables and eat them all year round. The traditional way of preserving vegetables is to pluck the young leaves and drop them in boiling water for a few seconds. Few nutrients are lost in this method. Once they are dry, they can be stored.
Mr. Nyirenda exhibited at the annual agriculture fair in Blantyre in 2010. He displayed a woven bag made from dried leaves on his stand. The bag held dried vegetables. He says, “My children do not know that our parents used to keep and preserve food in these leaf bags. It is bad. We are losing our tradition.”
Mrs. Mwalabu uses similar woven bags to preserve pumpkin seeds. She breaks open a well-matured pumpkin, scoops out the seeds and dries them on a bamboo plate. Then she puts the seeds in the leaf bag and hangs them in the kitchen.
She keeps other seeds in the kitchen, such as eggplant. She allows a ripe eggplant to dry while still on the bush. Then she collects the dried eggplants and hangs them in her kitchen. Smoke preserves the seeds and the rats cannot reach them.
Mrs. Mwalabu rarely sees eggplant or pumpkin seeds for sale in local markets. When they are present, people rarely buy them. She explains that farmers usually buy from their neighbours, or buy “… from someone they trust because different varieties have different flavours.” She says that local varieties which are sweet, tasty and have a long shelf life are now scarce. This is because the culture of preserving seeds and food is dying. She is happy that NGOs like FAIR Malawi are encouraging indigenous innovations and local techniques. She hopes this will bring back the nutritious local varieties she loves.