Seeds are the new big challenge for Africa's female farmers

In Malawi and many other African countries, women are traditionally the custodians of seeds. (Photo: Jeff Walker/Center for International Forestry)

In Malawi and many other African countries, women are traditionally the custodians of seeds. (Photo: Jeff Walker/Center for International Forestry)

Rosemary Kadzitche is one of the luckier female farmers in Malawi. The former teacher turned farmer joined the National Association for Smallholder Farmers (Nasfam) in Malawi and was given a position of authority that provided her with a voice.

This is extremely valuable in a sector where women dominate in numbers, but it’s the men who usually make the rules. Kadzitche alleges that they even actively try to force women out of decision-making roles, which is made easier by the fact that literacy levels among women are lower, at 67.3% in comparison to 76.5% for men.

For Kadzitche, being in an association has made all the difference. Nasfam has a new policy that makes decisions by farmers non-binding if women haven’t been involved or consulted in the process.

Seed wrinkle

But there’s an issue that has not been addressed despite Nasfam’s support, one that Kadzitche says affects female farmers everywhere — seeds. In Malawi and many other African countries, women are traditionally the custodians of seeds.

Kadzitche explains that women developed this role as they preserved seeds from current crops for the planting season the following year. She says that this occurred because women invested more time “planning the farming, while the men do not consider or prioritise the seeds; they don’t think that far ahead”.

The issue of seeds essentially reveals the different gender roles within the household. While the women smoke-dry the corncobs in the kitchen to preserve them for the next year, the men look for ways to diversify their agricultural activities, such as pursuing lucrative tobacco farming.

But women’s role is being compromised and the women are increasingly concerned about the new hybrid seeds that are flooding the market. At the ground level the hybrid seeds are presenting a new set of challenges. According to agronomist Jacopo Parigiani, the nature of the hybrid seed is that it is developed to have low fertility, decreasing its ability to germinate. “They do this because it’s a business,” he says. “They need to ensure people keep buying to sustain the industry.”

This means that women are not able to preserve or exchange seeds and are instead compelled to buy hybrid seeds every year. This comes at a high cost. To maintain the hybrid seeds expensive fertilisers are needed, as are pesticides to preserve certain strains while the harvest is in storage.

Research conducted by the African Centre for Biosafety in 2014 found that when increased input costs are taken into account, farmers adopting these technologies “realise a potential income deficit of K55.954 (US$133.22)”. The option to revert to traditional seeds decreases because of rising soil infertility, due to a reliance on the synthetic fertiliser used to support the hybrid varieties.

Climate change

The situation is a bit of a catch-22. One of the biggest concerns of farmers in the area is climate change and the associated changing weather patterns. Already this year Malawi has experienced the worst flooding the country has ever seen, and droughts are also on the increase. Both the droughts and the floods damage agricultural production, particularly the staple crop, maize.

Dry spells are increasingly common and can cause losses of 20-30% of total yield per hectare. Between 2001 and 2010 the number of districts classified as flood-prone rose. As a reaction, the hybrid seeds are being disseminated to meet the changing needs. Some seeds for example are coated with fertiliser or chemicals, which give them a higher chance of survival after germination, a potential food security life-saver for households.

Then there are drought tolerant maize varieties that have been developed by the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project specifically for Malawi’s drought-prone areas. The adoption of these new seeds is driven by Malawi’s strategy to realise improved productivity in the agricultural sector; the government started a Farmer Input Subsidy Programme that allows increased access to seeds. This has been an essential element in the expansion of hybrid seeds in Malawi, but according to the African Centre for Biosafety report most of the new grains yield relatively minor increases.

Working for the smallholder

Nevertheless the government is seeking to streamline its seed policy and a new strategy is being formed to operationalise a National Seed Policy. The formal seed system comprises local and multinational seed companies, most of which have their own breeding, production and distribution programmes, which the government has recognised need to operate within a strict protocol for the protection of the sector and smallholder farmers as a whole.

A draft of the strategy shows that the government is seeking to establish an agricultural bank or fund to promote activities such as seed production and marketing. It is encouraging to note that in the draft are plans to ban misleading adverts on improved seeds, imposing penalties for any misleading and/or false advertising on seeds. The policy is still in its infancy, and it can only be hoped that the advocacy work by associations such as Nasfam will ensure that the needs of smallholder farmers are truly met.

This article is from an eBook titled “On Africa’s Farms”, a supplement produced by Mail and Guardian Africa, in partnership with TrustAfrica