“Home-grown seeds give life”

Colourful diversity and brisk trading: anybody who takes a quick look at the seed exchange in Niamey would hardly suspect the serious background to events. Locally-grown seeds are at risk in Niger. And that means the food security of many local farmers is also in danger.

The farmers stand proudly and smartly-dressed behind their market stalls. They have travelled from all eight regions of Niger and six other African countries to present their seeds on long wooden tables; the seeds have always been passed on from mother to daughter, father to son. For many farmers this is the only healthy and secure food source.

The farmers are ignored

Locally-produced seeds imply tradition and identity. Generations of farmers in Niger have cultivated countless seed varieties. But this diversity is at risk. The government wants to dispute the quality of the seed with restrictive seed laws and to prevent commercial distribution. The result: big international businesses are taking control of the market and forcing their expensive seeds on the farmers. Despite the great importance of farming seed systems, the farmers’ communities are excluded from the political discussion.

But it’s still not too late. The agroecology platform “Raya Karkara” (“Life on the Land”), co-founded by SWISSAID, is providing resistance. Local producer associations, non-governmental organisations and training institutes are joining forces to promote agroecology and farmers’ rights – for example, with an international workshop and the seed exchange in April. “The locally-produced seed is our guarantee for the future”, says Ibrahim Hamadou, a SWISSAID Niger employee and one of the organisers of the seed workshop. Only local seeds have the capacity to feed the population: “They are adapted to local conditions and also survive climate change. This is exactly what the expensive seed sold by the big companies does not achieve.”

Diversity offers hope

Seed laws, plant variety protection, biopiracy and genetically-modified beans: the farmers’ heads are spinning with all the information that they receive at the workshop in Niamey. “Finally, someone is explaining to them what plans the agro-multinationals are making behind their backs with the government, and what risks their seeds are exposed to”, explains Ibrahim Hamadou.

The farmers don’t want to give up because they’ve brought hope with them in the form of multiple seed varieties, which they exhibit at the seed exchange, and swap among themselves. Various onion varieties, melons, pumpkins, okras, tomatoes, beans and even carrots are on display at the colourful market stalls. Millet and sorghum are popular and satisfy daily hunger. The sorghum variety Berbéré from Chad is particularly popular: it should provide an abundant harvest and can also be used as medicine. The cluster of people around the stand is growing and everyone wants to take a handful home with them. In the past, they would have also planted this variety, though they lost it over time, as the older farmers from Niger recall. Thanks to the exchange, it will flourish again in future on their fields.

Local seeds guarantee independence

The workshop and the exchange were only the starting point for activities of the agroecology platform. With the support of SWISSAID, it will promote local seed conservation with farmers throughout Niger. “We demand that the government respect farmers’ rights and involve them in decisions rather than representing the interests of big business”, explains Ibrahim Hamadou. The declaration, which is read out at the end of the events, summarises what this is all about: “Seeds give life and life nurtures seed. Only locally-produced seeds guarantee our independence and food sovereignty as farmers.”