Access to seed is crucial for small farmers

Changing weather conditions, degraded soils and resistance require adapted seed. But recently, legislation for seed breeding and trade in East Africa has become more restrictive. Why free access to seed is crucial.


Seed banks, like this one in Vihiga County, Kenya, make it easier for small farmers to access different varieties.

Loredana Sorg, Programme Officer

Robust and diverse seeds are key to sustainable food production – especially in small-scale farming structures like those found in East African countries, where many farmers grow food to ensure their own food security. Extreme weather conditions plus the use of only a few varieties and excessive pesticides are changing the conditions under which crops are grown, causing a critical drop in yields. 
The decline in seed diversity means that indigenous knowledge, cultural assets and, above all, security for the future are being lost. Yet local varieties and wild plants form the basis of modern crop breeding for new characteristics such as pest resistance, drought tolerance or substances. Biovision works with partner organisations to revive traditional knowledge in rural areas and to develop, adapt and disseminate alternative cultivation methods.

Helping to increase field diversity with seed banks

Since seeds adapted to local conditions and indigenous tree seedlings are not easy to find, farmers have set up their own seed banks and tree nurseries with support from Biovision. In Vihiga County, Kenya, for example, our partner Bioversity International is supporting ten farmer groups in setting up local seed banks
Correctly handling seeds is crucial for the success of small farmers’ harvests, so the farmer groups in Vihiga are also being trained in seed management. Future cultivation trials using the national seed collection are planned for increasing agrobiodiversity in the region with well suited food crops.
Namely through Biovision’s Vihiga project have researchers been able to show that higher agrobiodiversity in the fields also leads to a more balanced diet among farming families. A large variety of readily available seeds therefore not only improves long-term food security and the ability to respond to changing environmental conditions. It also has a direct positive influence on the health of farmers – and especially their children.

  • Community seed banks are informal institutions that usually seek, store, propagate and trade local seed varieties.
  • A group of farmers has just turned a recently acquired storage building into a seed bank...
  • and sowed their traditional vegetables in the adjacent field. (On the picture you can see the building in its former condition.)

Access to seed is of great importance

In our partner countries, local seeds and the informal seed sector are of great importance for food security, as 80–90% of farmers obtain their seeds from the informal sector. This means that they rely on their own seed propagation, bartering, gifts and sales among neighbours, and seed offered at the local market – all non-certified seed. Social control, including the reputation of seeds in local markets and among neighbours, substitutes for formal certification. The more destitute the producers are, the more they depend on the local seed market.

Bartering and seed propagation under pressure

Increasingly strong national and interregional plant variety protection laws, as well as patented bred varieties, make it more difficult for farmers to sell, exchange or reuse their seeds. While seeds used in small quantities are excluded from plant variety protection in Switzerland, legislation is increasingly changing in favour of multinational seed companies in our project countries in East Africa. 
Cooperation with the private sector can be helpful, however, for example in the Biovision Push-Pull project in Zimbabwe: farmers need specific seeds for the maize cultivation method at a certain point in time. Previously these had to be imported, so they were often not available when needed. By recruiting Mukushi Seeds as a partner company, it is now possible to produce the seeds locally. (Find out more here and in the video.)