The overcast sky promises rain, but farmer Happy Shongwe is not pleased.
Mrs. Shongwe grows only one crop: legume seeds. She says, “If I don’t cover the seeds, the rain will spoil them and they will fail the test at the laboratory.” She covers her seeds with a tarpaulin to keep them dry.
Mrs. Shongwe is a small-scale farmer from Maphungwane in the district of Lubombo in eastern Swaziland. Near her field is a cement-block structure. She dries her legume seeds in this roofless building, then transfers them to storage containers. Her containers hold peanuts, jugo and mung beans, cowpeas and groundnuts. Mrs. Shongwe says these legumes are drought-tolerant, and grow well in dry parts of the country.
She is preparing to take samples to the Ministry of Agriculture’s Seed Quality Control. She hopes her seeds pass the tests and meet the quality requirements.
Mrs. Shongwe explains, “I get a certificate that shows that my seeds germinate at the required standard, [and are] therefore good for planting.” One of her major clients is the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO.
Mrs. Shongwe says, “FAO has placed an order of one tonne of groundnuts from this harvest, which we are supposed to supply by September.” She organized the ten members of the Lutsango Palata Co-operative to produce seeds. The members will help Mrs. Shongwe deliver on FAO’s order.
She says, “We make [more] money from selling [seeds] compared to farmers who sell for food.”
The drought-stricken Lubombo district has about 10 similar women’s associations. Over 100 women are involved in the seed-growing project. They produce indigenous seeds, the taste of which many Swazis prefer to newer varieties. They sell the seeds in their own communities before offering them countrywide.
Khanyisile Mabuza is FAO’s assistant representative in Swaziland. She says, “It used to be very difficult for farmers to come across seed inputs for legumes because these are marginalized crops.”
Ms. Mabuza says FAO contacted the Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture at the start of the drought in the 1990s. FAO trained women farmers in seed production and entrepreneurship. The organization targeted dry areas, where farmers have long grown the country’s staple crop of maize. Maize has consistently produced poor yields because of the drought.
Leguminous crops are very important to balance the diet, and tend to tolerate drought. Legumes are considered “women’s crops” in Swaziland. Therefore, the FAO targeted women to become seed producers.
Ms. Mabuza says, “Women also form the majority of farmers and it makes sense to ensure that women have enough inputs to do their farming.”
She adds: “We want our farmers to understand that, because of climate change, drought is going to be a part of their lives and they must now learn to adapt. We’re very happy with the progress these women farmers are making.”
Chris Mthethwa is the operations manager at the Ministry’s Seed Quality Control. He says that many subsistence farmers do not have the resources to buy expensive hybrid seeds produced by multinational companies. Community-based seed producers provide an alternative to the escalating costs of commercial agriculture.
If Swaziland’s seed producers meet the requirements for export, they will be able to sell seeds to other countries. The seeds produced by these small-scale farmers could be exported to countries in the Southern African Development Community.
By the end of this year, Mrs. Shongwe hopes to be able to expand her customer base. She says proudly, “I can’t wait to start exporting.”