Malawi’s agriculture is predominantly defined by small-scale farmers. In fact, studies show that 70 percent of smallholder farmers in the country use informal seeds. However, the draft Seed Policy, which government has developed, only focuses on formal seeds. If it gets approved unchanged, writes our news analyst EPHRAIM NYONDO, the impact on Malawi’s agriculture will be disastrous.
Along the fertile wetlands of Shire River 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. He selects and recycles his seeds from previous harvest.
Local seeds, unlike hybrid ones, have a great taste and are resistant to weevils, he says. In case of rice, he adds, local seeds have a great aroma.
But a danger hovers on the head of Jemusi. A new draft Seed Policy, currently awaiting to be taken to Cabinet for approval, sidelines small scale farmers such as Jemusi. In Malawi, more than 80 percent of farmers are small scale and 70 percent of them use informal seeds.
The draft Seed Policy recognizes that the seed industry in Malawi is comprised of the 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 constitutes the major source of seed for the majority of smallholder farmers. Sources of seed in the informal sector are largely from farm saved seed, farmer-to-farmer exchange, local markets, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Community Based Organisations (CBOs).
However, according to William Chanza, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), 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 phenomen.
He adds the policy does not recognise the importance of the informal sector neither the valuable contribution of smallholder farmers for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, which constitute the basis of food and agriculture production in Malawi and throughout the world.
The draft policy, he adds, becomes incomplete in its scope and regulation when ignoring Malawi smallholder farmers as key players of the agricultural sector.
Chanza further says that the draft Seed Policy has implications for the informal seed sector.
“It establishes the Malawi National Seed Commission, which in collaboration with the private sector will establish and develop institutional, regulatory and legal framework for the effective and efficient functioning of the seed industry.
“It is clear that the interests and needs of the formal seed sector will be ensured, while those of the informal seed sector, particularly the interests and needs of smallholder farmers will not have any representation within the commission,” he says.
The draft policy also encourages the establishment of village seed banks by extension programmes at the village level as suppliers of planting materials for the crops which are not handled by the existing commercial seed sector.
However, Chanza feels that this will be done through Smallholder Seed Multiplication Groups aiming to improve the informal seed sector to an organised formal seed production system.
“ The draft policy again fails when limiting the aim of community seed banks, also known as village seed banks, as providers of planting materials not handled by the existing commercial sector,” he said.
Chanza adds that draft Seed Policy ignores the fact that Malawi is a Contracting Party of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, as it ratified the instrument in 2002.
“This international instrument recognises Farmers’ Rights and establishes that the responsibility for realising those rights, as they relate to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, rests with national governments. National governments should take measures to protect and promote farmers’ rights,” he said.
The draft policy, argues Chanza, includes some provisions that could affect farmers’ right to save, use and re-sow farm-saved seeds, as it establishes that farmers’ organisations will be pressured for not recycling seeds and encourage farmers to buy and use newly-purchased seed annually from certified seed agencies.
“Finally, the draft Seed Policy includes a chapter on breeders’ right but not on Farmer’s Rights,” he said.
The government, however, has justified this legislation by pointing to the need to harmonise Malawian seed legislation with other countries in the region, aligning them with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc), Africa Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (Aripo), and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, an agreement endorsed by the United States (US) along with many others.
Yet this has not gone down well with other stakeholders.
Professor of development studies at Chancellor College Blessings Chinsinga warns that if the proposed policy comes into effect, Malawian’s farmers and the abundant knowledge they have nurtured are bound to be trampled over in the process, threatening Malawi’s already fragile food security.
“Moreover, innovation in African agriculture has proceeded through collective community processes drawn from customary practices based on sharing,” he says.
According to professor of food security and nutrition at the University of Pretoria Professor Sheryl Hendriks, the indigenous knowledge that these farmers have acquired over the years is relevant in helping them adapt to climate change induced shocks.
Implementing such a policy, she adds, may undermine the knowledge that farmers have acquired over the years.
Meanwhile, research on a local orange maize variety (mthikinya) by Dr. Mangani Katundu of the University of Malawi in collaboration with Dr. Trust Beta of University of Manitoba, collaborating partners from Western Universities and Ekwendeni Mission Hospital, has highlighted the importance of local varieties to farmers.
According to one farmer in Dedza, Edwin Kasamba, farmers in Dedza and other parts of Malawi have been producing this maize since time in memorial.
The maize has some highly desirable qualities some of which include high levels of provitamin A, proteins and fats, it is early maturing, gives yields comparable to hybrid varieties even where farmers mainly use manure. It also has desirable sensory properties.
On the other hand, national coordinator for the Civil Society Network for Agriculture (CisaNet) Tamani Nkhono-Mvula underlines that there is need to understand that there is the formal sector that deals with seed while the informal sector deals with grain. There is a difference between seed and grain scientifically.
The other aspect could be the commercial side of it. The seed companies in the formal sector are in business and they have to follow the rules and not sell counterfeit products,” he says.
He notes that there is a big part that the informal sector in the policy development can play, especially in plant breeding and variety selection and development.
The understanding is that most of the germplasm improvement is done on what is transacted in the informal sector, he explains.
He, then, notes that no policy is watertight, there could still be some gaps.
“However, this policy is subject to review from time to time and if there are any issues that need further consideration I think those could still find their way into the policy in the future reviews,” he said.
Neverthless, Katundu has since advised government to ensure that the policies and legislation that they put in place should protect and promote informal seed systems to ensure that farmers have power over their seed and that Malawians are able to exercise their right to food for Malawians. n