Zambia: National gene bank helps rural farmers meet need for seeds (by Brian Moonga for Farm Radio Weekly)

| March 21, 2011

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Maureen Nyambe grows groundnuts near Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka. She stores her seed in the traditional way. Seed multiplication and banking can be difficult for small-scale farmers like Mrs. Nyambe. She explains, “The availability of community seed banks in our farming communities would be essential but the expertise to maintain such facilities is limited.”

If Mrs. Nyambe needs more seed, she usually turns to friends and neighbours. She says, “Apart from the seed I store in my small shed, I also collect some from colleagues who are growing groundnuts. When I run out, I easily collect it from my neighbour.”

But now Mrs. Nyambe believes that Zambia’s national gene bank plays an important role by making scarce seed varieties available to farmers.  She explains, “Now we have been taught by people from the Ministry of Agriculture that we can obtain some varieties from their gene bank where they have vast varieties of the crops which I also grow.”

Zambia’s agricultural sector is largely comprised of smallholder farmers. They contribute more than half of the country’s agricultural output, though many farming communities still lack facilities such as communal seed banks.

Mr. Greybill Munkombwe is a research officer at Zambia’s gene bank, housed at the National Plant Genetic Resource Centre. The Centre holds field days and seed fairs where farmers, plant breeders and agricultural experts can consult with each other and network: “We hold these activities quarterly in a selected area which brings all farmers together. During the seed fair, farmers are able to display different seed varieties which are essential for our mission, and they too can share varieties amongst themselves.”

Mr. Munkombwe explains that the changing climate and new technologies like genetically modified organisms threaten the future of many varieties. As part of its conservation efforts, the Centre collects traditional crop seeds, then preserves them at low temperatures.

According to Mr. Munkombwe, farmers can access traditional seed varieties for multiplication. Breeders use the service when they want to produce a hybrid. The free service is a mutual system. Staff from the Centre collect varieties from farmers. In return, farmers know they can get the seeds they want at no cost, when needed. Mr. Munkombwe says, “Breeders [most often] seek this service, although some famers practice on-farm breeding, not on a commercial scale, just for their use during a farming season.”

Mr. Munkombwe says the Centre conducts field days to help farmers understand the link between seed varieties and plant breeding. He says, “Sometimes it is these same small-scale farmers that want to restore a particular variety which they have lost over time, so we provide the material in form of seed.”

According to Mrs. Nyambe, the facilities at the gene bank are essential for helping farmers diversify the crops they grow. She says, “Once any of us get [seed], we cultivate the crop for seed and share it amongst ourselves.” The gene bank is an invaluable source for a vast number of disappearing crops.