Community seed banks offer a sustainable way to improve access to high-value seeds, creating viable community-based businesses and maintaining biodiversity. In addition, community seed banks contribute to farmer adaptation. They also indirectly enhance household income diversification, community seed systems, and gender outcomes at community level.
Climate change and variability aggravate the challenges associated with agricultural livelihoods, with farmers struggling to maintain crop diversity, now more than ever. Existing mechanisms to meet farmers’ seed requirements are inadequate, but there is hope. According to research, community seed banks can improve farmer resilience through improved access to diverse, locally adapted crops and varieties, and enhance indigenous knowledge and skills in plant management, including seed selection, treatment, storage, multiplication and distribution.
Seed banks act as repositories of local genetic diversity that is often adapted to prevailing climate conditions, including biotic stresses, such as crop pests. They are also part of community-based adaptation strategies to climate change.
Various initiatives across Africa demonstrate that community seed banks are climate-smart and have potential to enhance crop productivity, income and household food security in the context of a changing climate.
CCAFS East Africa Seed Banks
One example is the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) in East Africa which is working with Bioversity International to establish community seed banks in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The aim is to ensure that community crop diversity is preserved, and to provide farmers with easy access to superior quality seed.
The seed banks have been established in three CCAFS climate-smart villages (CSVs), which are ‘lighthouses’ to demonstrate how communities can test, co-develop and adopt integrated portfolios of climate-smart agriculture practices. The seed banks are managed by local community-based organisations (CBOs). It is anticipated that through seed fairs and farmer exchange visits, the concept of establishing seed banks will be taken up by other communities/ farmers.
Community Seed Bank development programme
In Malawi, the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) has launched a community-based seed programme, which plays a crucial role in ensuring seed security and improving farmers’ access to seed. Farmers affiliated to NASFAM are trained in seed production and community seed bank management. The Community Seed Banks undergo certification processes by the Government authority responsible for seed certification. In common with the CCAFS initiative, land on which the seed bank is set up is made available by the CBO, thereby encouraging ownership.
Farmers can access seeds from the Community Seed Bank on condition that they repay the seed bank with 2.5 times the quantity of seed that they received. Any surplus above this amount remains the property of the farmer.
The seed that is repaid to the seed bank becomes the property of the community, so in this way the beneficiary farmer automatically becomes a secondary beneficiary. The revolving seed in the Community Seed Bank is then sold to buy new seed to sustain the programme.
“Seed is stored in seed stores at community level to ensure that planting material is available and that farmers can access these seeds at the right time,” says Wycliff Kumwenda from NASFAM. The programme does not require farmers to pay collateral to access seed from the seed bank. ‘’This I think is one of the key success factors of the programme,’’ observes Wycliff.
The seed bank programme has focused on improved legume seeds, in order to promote diversification. Legumes were selected as they benefit rural households in terms of nutrition, providing much needed protein, as well as income – when sold on the market.
Impacts for farmers
Several positive outcomes have been observed among participating farmers:
By managing their own seeds, farmers are able to plant with the first rains and at almost the same time. This ensures that farmers have a good crop and high yields. This also helps to achieve uniformity in crop maturity, which helps farmers in mobilising their crop for collective marketing.
Achieving uniformity of produce: Participating farmers produce grain and seed that are uniform in terms of variety purity. This reduces grading costs, and the purity of the variety attracts better markets and prices.
Beneficiaries report increasing productivity, resulting in improved household incomes and better socio-economic outcomes.
Promoting crop diversification: Farmers plant a wider variety of crops on their land due to the availability of well bred, adaptable and pest and disease-resistant varieties. In addition, community seed banks offer farmers a stepping stone towards economic diversification, i.e. income realised from grain and seed sales is invested in non-farm income generating activities like oil processing, and Village Savings and Loans. This has curtailed farmer’s negative economic activities, such as charcoal production.
Women play active roles in the day-to-day operations of community seed banks, as custodians and caretakers of seeds. This is the case in Malawi and in various countries under the CCAFS programme.
This article was created through a CTA-led process to document and share actionable knowledge on 'what works' for ACP agriculture. It capitalises on the insights, lessons and experiences of practitioners to inform and guide the implementation of agriculture for development projects.