Studies underline that 70 percent of smallholder farmers in the country use informal seeds. However, the draft Seed Policy only focuses on formal seeds, writes EPHRAIM NYONDO
Along the fertile wetlands of Lake Malombe in Mangochi District, Ajibu Jemusi, 47, owns a piece of land where he grows rice and maize. However, since he started cultivating the two crops in 1989, Jemusi has not, even once, bought a seed from retailers.
“I select my seeds from previous harvest. Local seeds, unlike hybrid ones, have a great taste and are resistant to weevils. In case of rice, local seeds have a great aroma,” he says.
His sentiments are true to Alinane Chiwusi’s who is maize and beans farmer from Mvera, Dowa. The married mother of six says she has always preferred local varieties to hybrid ones as they are not prone to weevils after harvest.
“In the past three years, because of subsidies I found myself using hybrid varieties. But I only grew it for a year. I reverted to local varieties. I had encountered problems of weevils and the taste was not that good. The nsima was not appetising,” she says.
Dyton Mateyu from Makwinja village, Traditional Authority Chiwalo, Phalombe, however, has a different story. The 47-year-old groundnuts and maize farmer says he stopped using local varieties six years ago after attending an agriculture fair where he learnt the importance of using hybrids.
Yet, in spite of that, Mateyu underlines that there are few people in his village who embraced this change. Most farmers here prefer selecting their own seeds, he adds.
“There are many reasons. Issues of taste, issues of weevils, issues of costs—just so many. But I believe it is just that most people are failing to accept winds of change,” he explains.
It might be in Phalombe, Mangochi, Dowa and Karonga or anywhere in Malawi; the question of seed preference among smallholder farmers Chiwusi and Jemusi is a story that underlines that most of them still grow seeds they have selected from previous harvest.
In fact, studies show that 70 percent of smallholder farmers in the country use their own selected seeds.
This is the reality of Malawi’s agriculture—the one policy analysts argue should have defined the issues of seed policy in the country.
Of course, the draft seed policy recognises that the seed industry in Malawi comprises formal and informal seed systems as main sources of seeds to farmers.
The formal seed system comprises local and multinational seed companies, most of which have their own breeding, production and distribution programmes.
On the other hand, the informal seed sector is largely from farm-saved seed, farmer to farmer exchange, local markets, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community based organisations (CBOs).
The draft policy acknowledges that the informal seed sector constitutes the major source of seed for the majority of smallholder farmers.
Yet despite that, the draft policy focuses only on the formal seed system, as it considers this sector to be the only system having scientifically traceable sources and mechanisms of the genetics in the seed used, making quality control easily applicable due to this traceability phenomenon.
In the end, the informal seed sector does not feature as a focus of the draft policy.
However, policy specialist at Chancellor College, associate professor Happy Kayuni argues that for a policy to be successful, it needs to take into consideration the voice of key stakeholders.
In the case of the draft policy, he adds, it appears the major stakeholder has been left out and the emphasis is on protecting the interest of multinational companies.
The question, then, is: Why does the draft policy leave out the major stakeholder?
National director of the Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet), Tamani Nkhono-Mvula, was part of the team that participated in the development of the draft policy.
“I was part of the team that oversaw the drafting of this policy and that issue was debated at length. However, the bone of contention here lies mainly on the definition of seed. What is a seed? And how does seed differs from grain?
“This policy defines seed as any type of living material, including fruit, root, stem, sprout, tree seedling and leaf capable of regenerating crops, trees, shrubs and pasture that is true to its type.
“For a planting material to pass this definition it has to undergo some scientific test and certified by the Seed Service Unit (SSU). Now if seed is understood this way, then everything that is transacted in the informal sector is not seed but grain and is outside the scope of this policy,” he says.
He underlines that traditionally, people select the best grains from the nkhokwe which they use as seed to plant, at times they share or sell to their friends.
“This policy, among others, is also meant to ensure that people who buy seed from the formal sector are not cheated but they get what is certified as seed, meaning that a seed company will be breaking the law if they just go at the market buy a bag of maize, colour it and sell it as seed without being certified by the Seed Services Unit (SSU).
“Everyone producing seed will have to be registered, monitored and his seed get the certificate of the SSU, otherwise it may be classified as grain and not fit for sell,” he explains.