Malawi: Seeds, the new big challenge for women farmers in Africa (Mail & Guardian)

| March 2, 2015

Download this story

Rosemary Kadzitche is one of the luckier women farmers in Malawi. The former teacher turned farmer joined the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi, also known as NASFAM, and now occupies a position of authority that gives her a voice.

Ms. Kadzitche says that, even though women dominate farming in Malawi, it is usually men who make the rules. She says that men try to actively force women out of decision-making roles. But NASFAM’s rules specify that decisions made by farmers are non-binding until women are involved or consulted.

In Malawi, like many other African countries, women are traditionally the custodians of seeds. Ms. Kadzitche explains that women assumed this role because they save seeds after harvest to be planted in following seasons. She says women invest more time in “planning the farming, while the men do not consider or prioritize the seeds – they don’t think that far ahead.”

But hybrid seeds are now being promoted as a solution to farmers’ problems. Ms. Kadzitche says this affects female farmers everywhere.

Seed companies and authorities are encouraging farmers to grow commercial hybrid varieties. The government of Malawi operates an input subsidy program that increases access to hybrid seeds as part of its strategy to improve the productivity of agriculture.

But hybrid seeds may not be the solution they purport to be. Research conducted by the African Centre for Biosafety in 2014 found that the increased costs of hybrid seeds and chemical inputs mean that farmers who use them often lose money.

Jacopo Parigiani is an agronomist. He says that hybrid seeds are designed to germinate poorly when saved and replanted. Mr. Parigiani says, “They [the seed companies] do this because it’s a business. They need to ensure [that] people keep buying [new seeds] to sustain the industry.”

Seeds harvested from hybrid crops cannot be preserved or exchanged, so farmers must buy hybrid seeds every year. Farmers also need to buy fertilizers to maximize their yields from hybrid crops, and some seed varieties require protective pesticides when stored after harvest. All this is expensive.

The government of Malawi is planning to establish a national seed policy. It recognizes that local and multinational seed companies must operate within strict rules in order to protect the farming sector, and small-scale farmers in particular. There are plans to ban misleading advertising about hybrid seeds and impose penalties on transgressors.

There is one final complicating factor, however – the changing climate. This year Malawians experienced the worst flooding their country has ever seen, and farmers throughout southern Africa are plagued by droughts. Both the droughts and the floods have ruined farmers’ harvests. If there is no harvest, there will be no saved seeds. Women’s plans for future planting seasons may be affected for years to come.

To read the full article on which this story was based, You wouldn’t think it, but seeds are the new big challenge for Africa’s female farmers, go to: