by Dan Kiprop Kibet
Statistics reveal that, of the over one billion undernourished people in the world today, 265 million live in sub-Saharan Africa. Three-quarters of the hungry live in rural areas and include farming families. There are many known causes of hunger, which hinder the successful production of agriculture and directly impact the small-scale farmer in particular. Climate change, environmental degradation, inadequate rainfall, floods, deficient infrastructure, economic hardships and government policies are some of the many factors that contribute to hunger in Kenya.
Recently, lack of seeds for planting is posing another threat to the small-scale farmer. Last year, many small-scale farmers in rural areas of Kenya were unable to access seeds of their choosing, especially maize, which is the staple crop of the region. Maize is an important crop to many Kenyans, and is mainly used to cook ugali, a delicacy enjoyed across the nation. As a result, when hunger strikes in Kenya, it often means that ugali will be missing from our dinner plates.
According to Dr. Vandana Shiva, seed is key. Both food supply and democracy are threatened when farmers are denied access to seed. If farmers do not have their own seeds, or access to open pollinated varieties that they can save, improve and exchange, they have no “seed sovereignty.” Seed sovereignty includes the farmer’s right to save, breed and exchange seeds. A farmer who has seed sovereignty has access to diverse open source seeds, which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants. It is a way based on reclaiming seeds and biodiversity as common and public good.
In Kenya, there is a marked dependence on large seed companies, cartels and distributors to provide hybrid seeds of staple crops such as, maize seeds. Buying from these larger organizations can negatively impact the small-scale farmer, as he is forced to rely on someone else to obtain choice seeds when he needs them. Furthermore, seeds aren’t always available, due to scarcity, cost, distance and the logistics inherent to purchasing seed. Many of the cartels also sell fake seeds. Yet, studies of indigenous seed saving practices have revealed that many African women posses agricultural knowledge that has helped them to maintain food security in times of drought and famine (Ericksen, 2005; Ramphele, 2004). Oftentimes, these women rely on indigenous plants that are more tolerant to drought and pests, providing reserve for extended periods of economic hardships. In Southern Sudan, for example, women are directly responsible for selection of sorghum seeds saved for planting each year (Easton and Roland 2000). They preserve a variety of seeds, which are resistant to the unpredictable weather conditions common to this region. In spite of this knowledge, however, many continue to rely on corporations for their seed.
In response to the growing unavailability of seed, a small-scale farmer from the rural area of Kimoso, Kerio-valley, Kenya has created a method of seed selection, seed saving and storage utilizing his own harvests. Meet Mr. Toroitich, the small-scale mixed farmer. His farm is decorated with many crops, livestock, and poultry and fruit trees. The crops are mostly from his own saved seeds, such as Maize, finger millet, sorghum, beans, groundnuts, cow-peas, and indigenous vegetables. He grows cotton as a cash crop and there is a ginnery a few kilometers away. Like many other Kenyans, having enough maize to feed a family throughout the year is important, as the crop serves as an everyday meal. In order to ensure that he has enough, Mr. Toroitich practices cultural methods of farming, such as early cultivation, early planting, crop rotation, diversification and inter-cropping. He regularly spreads animal manure to his farm to boost fertility, believing that respect for biodiversity should be a priority.
When I asked Mr. Toroitch about his experience purchasing seeds from larger conglomerates, he shared that his dependence on seed companies and stores had been hectic, time consuming, unreliable, and expensive. Saving his own seeds and planting them early has enabled him instead to harvest well each season, feed his family, and be self-sufficient, even in times of hunger. In addition, since Kenyan politicians have been pushing for the introduction of genetically modified crops to fight hunger, Mr. Toroitch has doubled his efforts to save more local seeds of his own.
This initiative has helped him to earn an income by selling the surplus seeds to other small-scale farmers in the area. Mr. Toroitich sells a kilo of maize seeds for Kshs. 80; a price that is much more affordable than the cost of hybrid seeds from large companies that charge up to Kshs. 120 for a kilo. While Mr. Toroitich’s price is stable, the cost of maize seeds from larger companies may also increase depending on market supply and demand.
Mr. Toroitich’s farm lies in Kimoso, Kerio-Valley, which is located within the larger Rift-Valley province. These are lowlands areas, and are considered to be arid and semi-arid lands (Asal). Rainfall is minimal, between 900-950mm per annum, and falls solely between the months of May and August. Planting early is crucial in order to utilize the rains. There after, dry spells may be experienced; however, rain occasionally falls in October. Due to recent climate change, the rain patterns have shifted tremendously and even the metrological station has a difficult time predicting the rains.
Soils in the area are dark-brown and sandy loamy. The land lies flat and soils are naturally fertile, which Toroitich attributes to the hilly sides surrounding the valley. Toroitich says that, when it rains, mostly top soils from the hilly sides are washed down to the farms. Crops are grown without application of synthetic fertilizers, and chemical spraying is only applied to cotton when pests invade for pure grade of the cash crop. According to Toroitich, this land is the “blessed valley,” and “it is pure abuse for any farmer to apply said fertilizers to natural fertile soils given by God.” Using the same land he inherited from his parents, Toroitich has managed to grow and produce diverse, nutritious crops successfully—a sizeable feat given the unpredictable climate of the Kimoso, Kerio-Valley. Additionally, Toroitich says that, although the soils are fertile and many crops can be grown, the ground is loose and vulnerable to severe soil erosion.
To save his seeds, Toroitich uses simple, locally available and naturally growing plant equipment as a seed bank, the gourd or calabash. It is a plant from the Curcubitaceae family, and is characterized by climbing tendrils. A seed bank functions as a storage container for seeds in case seed reserves elsewhere are destroyed. Most often, the seed stored is that of food crops or those of rare species to protect biodiversity Storing seeds guards against any catastrophic events like natural disasters, outbreaks of disease, and war.
The gourds must be prepared prior to use as a storage facility. A mature and ripe gourd is picked and an opening is made on top. Water is poured inside, and a stick is used for easy removal of seeds and other pulpy substances. The gourd is then left for 2 weeks, while closed tightly and covered with grass to facilitate hardening. Meanwhile, the outer layer of the gourd can be scrapped. After the seeds and the pulpy substance are poured out, a special indigenous tree bark is crushed, placed inside the gourd, and in mixed with water. Toroitich says that the bark comes from a tree called “simotwo” in his local dialect. The bark acts as a stabilizing agent and helps suppress the foul smell. However, this process must be repeated several times to fully remove the smell. Finally, in order to disinfect the gourd, fresh cow dung is placed inside, and the gourd must again be left for a number of days. A special palm tree from the Hypaene Compressa family is used to clean the gourd, which is then hung upside down to dry completely until it’s ready for use.
According to Toroitich, gourds (calabash) are integral to the entire community. Before the introduction of plastic containers, gourds were used to fetch and store water from streams. Additionally, water inside a gourd could remain cold even in hot temperatures common to the area. Nowadays, gourds are used to prepare sour milk in many households, a treat for many families and a delicacy that is often used as part of various important ceremonies. Gourds also serve as decorations in many the home and as a gifts of appreciation. Most importantly, however, gourds are central to successful seed saving. With the help of his wife, Toroitich has managed to prepare and save diverse seeds.
Toroitich also hangs seeds in his kitchen as another tool for seed saving. He says that it’s an effective way to store seed, as smoke from cooking repels most pests and reduces moisture content to a suitable level. Also, seeds like these of maize and sorghum can last long when hung. That being said, Toroitich says that it may be difficult for the hungry farmer to resist temptation when seeds are hanging in the home. “When food is scarce, a farmer can decide to sacrifice the seeds for a meal.’’
When choosing seeds to store, Toroitich relies mostly on his observational skills and keen monitoring of plants. Toroitich pays particular attention to the growth of the crop, resistance to pests and disease, production, and physical appearance. He marks the chosen crop by tying a polythene paper to the plant in order to distinguish it from the rest. When harvesting comes, Toroitich harvests the seed’s crops and stores them separately. For maize seeds, he chooses only the middle seeds on a maize cob for its physical Purity. Before saving seeds, Toroitich treats them by drying them in the sun for a number of days. The gourds are sprinkled with cow dung ash, neem ash or wood ash. Ash works to fill up spaces around the seeds and hinders the movement of insects. Also, the closed gourds reduce the volume of air available to insects for respiration. The most common destructive insect is the weevil. Toroitich admits that weevils have been a frequent enemy, destroying their seeds and food grains more than any other pest. He says that ash can dehydrate the insects and have a detrimental effect on egg development. After placing the seed and ash mixture in the gourd, Toroitich adds an additional 3 cm layer of ash on top. Then it is closed tightly using a maize cob which fits the opening of the gourd to prevent pest from entering inside to destroy the seeds “see- no- weevil idea”.
According to Toroitich, before the advent of large seed companies, small-scale farmers had to save their own seeds to maintain an annual cycle of crop and food production. Although this practice may seem antiquated, Toroitich’s case teaches us that saving seeds from harvests continues to be cheaper and more reliable than buying hybrid seeds each year. Toroitich is a clear example of how combining practiced skill with agricultural wisdom and indigenous knowledge can help the small-scale farmer to become self-sufficient and autonomous. With the help of a gourd—a common household object in rural Kenya that is both affordable and easy to use—Toroitich was able to create a seed bank and save seeds for planting rather than relying on large seed companies. In my opinion, the act of a small- scale farmer saving own seeds will enable them be self sufficient, save time during planting season and plant their favorable seed crops. With such initiatives, they are able to produce their own food. Therefore, hunger can be tamed in their households.