10 November 2023 in Dodoma, capital of Tanzania. The sun is shining, the day is pleasantly warm. The air is filled with the aroma of fried bananas, of maize from the national dish Ugali – and also the hope of change. In a convention centre in the middle of the city, the course is being set for sustainable agriculture in the East African country. This is one of the highlights – and the harvesting – of SWISSAID’s work over the past year. The event, which we co-organised, saw around 300 high-ranking politicians discussing agroecology, traditional seeds and market access with experts, NGO representatives and smallholders.

Lively and inspiring discussions accompanied by lots of tasting sessions and practical relevance. Finally, the launch of the national strategy for organic farming was celebrated under a shower of golden confetti. “This highlights the government’s willingness and helps to create a positive outlook for agroecology in the country,” says SWISSAID employee Veronica Massawe.

Old knowledge, new solutions

One of the focal points of the event was CROPS4HD, a project that was launched in 2021 and which sees SWISSAID working closely with the Alliance for Food Security Africa (AFSA) and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Tanzania, Chad, Niger and India. The project is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and its goal is to use agroecological methods and forgotten crops (see box) to guarantee healthy and sufficient diets, especially for women.

Initial findings from evaluations in Tanzania show encouraging results: “Overall food security is increasing, with meals becoming more balanced and substantial,” says Veronica Massawe. A survey of over 200 beneficiaries shows that the transition from intensive to extensive farming is full of stumbling blocks for women farmers. Yields decline in the first year but soon rise again, usually to well above the previous level. Production costs are also lower, because the price of expensive fertilisers, pesticides and seeds is eliminated. The result is that households have more money to live on.

“Overall food security is increasing, with meals becoming more balanced and substantial.”, Veronica Massawe, SWISSAID employee in Tanzania

Amina Mohamed can confirm this – the 40-year-old smallholder lives in the Pwani region of eastern Tanzania. She converted her fields to organic farming five years ago with the support of SWISSAID, and today she grows a variety of vegetables, fruit and wheat. She sells her home-grown tomatoes at the market in the nearby town, receiving 2,000 shillings per kilo, the equivalent of 0.70 Swiss francs. Her conventional tomatoes had brought her a price of just 600 shillings.

To keep pests at bay, she mixes a paste of chilli, aloe vera and the bark of the neem tree, and she uses composted manure from cows and chickens as fertiliser. Expensive and harmful products are a thing of the past. “My expenses are so much lower now,” says Amina Mohamed.

The change has a positive impact not only in economic terms, but also on health. “My diet is much more varied, and I sometimes eat vegetables straight from the field. I never used to do that when I was still using pesticides. I feel better in general, and get ill less often,” says Amina Mohamed.

Wheat, rice and maize

Whereas a total of around 6,500 plant species were cultivated for food throughout the history of mankind, only 170 are still in use today. Just three varieties – wheat, rice and maize – account for 40 percent of our daily calorie consumption. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 75 percent of all varieties have been lost over the past 100 years.

This lack of diversity is damaging, not only with regard to the plants but also the organisms and insects, with vital cycles being destroyed forever. But the loss of diversity also has a major impact on our health. According to the Global Hunger Index 2023, almost two billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, lacking vitamins, iron, zinc or iodine.

Smallholders present their seeds at the National Ecological Organic Agriculture Conference in Dodoma.

The multinationals choose the seeds

One of the causes of the decline in biodiversity is industrialised agriculture. Whereas landscapes were once composed of diverse systems, now they are dominated by standardised production units, highly specialised value chains and monocultures. A small number of huge agricultural corporations control the world’s agriculture. “The multinationals are focussing on a handful of plants. Their aim is to market individual varieties worldwide wherever possible, causing local varieties to disappear,” explains Simon Degelo, seed expert at SWISSAID.

In addition, countries in the Global South are forced by industrialised countries to apply strict property rights to seeds through trade agreements. “Specifically, farmers are no longer allowed to propagate, exchange or sell commercial seed themselves, so they have to buy it every year,” says Degelo. As the large seed companies are also the biggest suppliers of pesticides, they have little interest in breeding resistant plants. The result is large-scale monocultures in which anything that “gets in the way” is killed off – weeds, and beneficial and harmful organisms alike.

But back to that warm November day in Tanzania. Back to the conference. The event not only marked the start of an urgently needed process of change in the agricultural sector. It is also a shining example of how SWISSAID’s work functions: locally anchored, on an equal footing and a networked basis. Our vision is to use small seeds to make big changes worldwide. This vision can only be achieved if we work together – we want a world in which hunger has been overcome and even the poorest can live a healthy, dignified and self-determined life!

NUS – another term for hope

“Neglected and underutilised species” (NUS) are crops that have long been neglected by research and breeding – despite playing an important role in nutrition, especially for disadvantaged groups of the population in rural areas. NUS are usually native to the environments in which they are grown, which means they are better adapted to local conditions and require less fertiliser. Many NUS can thrive in poor soils and dry conditions, making them an important tool in the fight against climate change. Examples of NUS include finger millet, Bambara groundnut and amaranth. The latter grows within just a few weeks, needs little water and provides plenty of nutrients. With NUS, people are better protected against hunger and poverty. Read more about NUS in the brochure “Agrobiodiversity on the Plate”.

Amina Mohamed switched to organic farming six years ago.

Many years of expertise

When it comes to seeds, SWISSAID has a wealth of knowledge and practical experience on which to draw. SWISSAID supported the small farmers’ movement “La Via Campesina” in Nicaragua 30 years ago, which saw landless farmers fight for their rights and start running local seed and grain banks.

Seeds have become established as the most important element of our work, in all countries: seed guardians in Nicaragua, for example, managed 406 seed banks last year. They bred crop seeds, focussing on diversity and preserving their independence from agricultural multinationals for both themselves and the other small farmers in the neighbourhood.

2,200 seed guardians are involved in SWISSAID projects worldwide. They preserve ancient knowledge about seeds and pass it on in their communities, while also giving entire villages access to crop seeds. Around 40,000 people benefited from this last year.

Saatgut für alle!

Saatgut wird zunehmend von Unternehmen privatisiert. Dank Ihrer Hilfe bleibt die Vielfalt an Pflanzen in den Händen von Kleinbäuerinnen und Kleinbauern. Das sichert die Ernährungssouveränität und die Biodiversität.