Five years ago, women in Mali formed the Convergence of Women for Food Sovereignty, or COFERSA. The women’s organization collects, maintains, stores, multiplies, and preserves farmer-bred seeds. By doing so, the women say they are safeguarding food sovereignty by ensuring full control of local seeds.
Alimata Traoré is president of COFERSA. She says, “Historically in Africa, it is women who are responsible for conserving family seeds. We are the guardians of this traditional practice in order to maintain and control what we eat.”
COFERSA is a union of 33 women’s co-operatives, with 3900 members across Mali. The organization’s headquarters are in Sikasso. But the group did not start out as a seed union. At first, the women of COFERSA processed and sold grains and other agricultural products.
But storing grains grown with chemical fertilizers was problematic. Fatoumata Coulibaly is a COFERSA member who used to process grains. She recalls, “We found that our … products were hard to store because of the chemicals used in production.”
In response to this problem, the women turned to agroecology. Just before this switch, the women acquired 20 hectares of land. The organization trained its members on agroecological practices, including how to make organic fertilizer and plant-based insect repellents.
After the training, the women started to identify and collect local grain seeds. Mrs. Traoré says, “We are present almost everywhere in Mali with our co-operatives. This greatly facilitates our seed collection. Each co-operative is responsible for collecting seeds in its area.”
The women exchange seeds to obtain varieties they don’t have. This approach has helped them identify nearly 40 different kinds of farmer-bred seeds, including 19 varieties of sorghum.
After identifying and collecting the seeds, the last step is to multiply them on the 20-hectare field in Sikasso. After harvest, the women use traditional techniques to store the seeds in clay pots, gourds, and in attics.
For now, COFERSA doesn’t sell seeds. Mrs. Traoré explains: “We are still at the stage of multiplication. When we have seeds in sufficient quantity, we can make them available to Malian producers so they can free themselves from buying imported seeds.”
The women of COFERSA say they can’t win the fight for food sovereignty without controlling the seed supply. They fear that if local seed varieties start to disappear, farmers will be at the mercy of companies that require them to buy patented seeds every year.
Mrs. Traoré warns, “Our grandparents [have passed seeds on to us] that we must pass on to our children; [otherwise we risk] turning them into slaves subject to the will of seed-producing companies.”