17th May 2000

Farmer's Seed Bank Project Enhances Biodiversity

By Wandera Ojanji, ELCI

It was an amazing display of seed (crop) diversity. The Seed Fair at the UNEP lobby organized by ITDG, saw farmers display seeds that many had forgotten, many had never known, ever existed. It was by and large a case of farmers' success in agricultural biodiversity management, utilization and conservation.

But how have they managed to conserve such diversity in times when many species are disappearing, especially in a dryland ecosystem, like Tharaka in Eastern Kenya, where it is very fragile?

Through the assistance and training from ITDG, the farmers formed the Gakia Seed Conservation Group. Through collective effort and information sharing, the group has looked for seeds or crop varieties that used to do well in the area but have disappeared.

The success of the group has been overwhelming as evidenced at the exhibition. In 1997, when the group was formed, the group identified and collected 15 seed or crop varieties. Just three years down the line, they have collected over 40 varieties that had disappeared.

To ensure the sustainability of their project, they have formed a community seed bank from where farmers can easily access the various seed varieties. The group even distributes to non-members as a way of further diversification on various farms.

Because of the initiative, they now have about 50 varieties of sorghum and over 29 varieties of millet, growing in Tharaka.

Amina Njeru, who has been one of the group members and a beneficiary of the initiative now boasts of having, eight varieties of millet, seven varieties of cowpeas, four varieties of green grams, among other crop varieties. She says her greatest achievement was the acquisition of mugoi, and Mututwa, millet varieties that had disappeared long time ago when she was still a child. Mugoi is very sweet while Mututwa is very good for beer making.

Even in her later 40's, and the bias towards modern foods or lifestyle fond memories of her favorite millet and the associated products still lingers on. And she wasn't the only one with whom the Fair aroused fond memories of the past. The seed and vegetable varieties also touched the Kenyan Ambassador to Japan, Her Excellency Mary Odinga, on display.

She said, "I look with nostalgia to the past when I recall how I used to see granaries of my grandparents filled to capacity with all manner of healthy foods harvested from the same farm that today produces sickly harvest of beans and maize."

In fact, Amina Njeru, while acknowledging the contribution of biotechnology in agricultural diversity, says farmers' ignorance has played a big role in crop failures of some of the introduced varieties, her being one of the victims. However, they have vast knowledge on crop husbandry of their indigenous crops, something that has ensured no crop failures.

For instance, having been impressed by the performance of Pioneer and Kagil maize varieties, she adopted the varieties on her farm. However, unaware that the varieties cannot be replanted, she went ahead and used the seed from the harvest for the next planting. It was disaster. She only managed to get very healthy leafy vegetation, but no grain.

She is indeed very grateful to ITDG for the education and training they are providing, saying that it has not only assisted them in diversification of agricultural crops but has also helped them attain some level of food sufficiency.

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