How seeds are saving women in Gilgil from hunger

In the face of poor harvests from frequent drought, women in Gilgil turn to indigenous knowledge on seed saving for food security, and it comes with reduction of intimate partner violence

For nearly a decade, Beatrice Wangui often stared at the rocky ground surrounding her new home in Langalanga, and reminisced upon the good old days in Molo, where farmland was in plenty, soil was fertile and bumper harvests of maize, beans and potatoes were routine.

Ms Wangui and her family were forced out of their home in Molo in December 2007, following the violence that erupted in light of the contested presidential election result. They initially sought refuge in Gilgil, before settling in Langalanga in 2012. There, the smallholder farmer family figured that farming would not be part of their new life.

“We bought the land we could find (and afford) at the time. We didn’t have the luxury of being choosy, but the land was so rocky, I didn’t think anything could grow out of it,” says Ms Wangui, who is now a vegetable farmer in Langalanga, Nakuru County.

Back then Ms Wangui got by as a casual labourer on other people’s farms, until she learnt about dryland farming techniques from a local community group, which was being trained by Seed Savers Network, a Nakuru-based organisation that trains small-holder farmers to improve the productivity of their farms for food security.

“I learnt that crops could grow anywhere, even on rocky ground, and learnt that I didn’t have to worry about seeds,” she tells Africa Solutions Media Hub.

With rains comes conflict

According to the Nakuru Climate Risk Profile, nine in 10 smallholder farmers growing crops like beans, garden peas and Irish potatoes use local or recycled seed. Moreover, like in other parts of the country, farmers in Nakuru rely on rain-fed agriculture, which is a challenge as rains are erratic and unpredictable.

These two factors would come into play for women, on whose shoulders the burden of providing food is placed. During the rainy season, conflict, and in turn gender-based violence, would increase in homes.

“The onset of the rainy season comes with conflict (and violence) when women ask their husbands for money to buy seeds. You can’t plant when others are planting if your husband doesn’t have money or hasn’t given you money,” says Ms Wangui.

According to Julia Kamau, the gender and agroecology officer at Seed Savers Network, for many of the women, land, which is owned by their husbands, is their only source of livelihood.

“It can take even a month just to get Sh1,000 which may not be enough for a packet of seeds and other needs,” says Ms Kamau.

Mitigation strategy

To get around the lack of seeds and money to buy them, women would seek work on other people’s farms to raise money for seeds, but that would affect their ability to use early planting as a climate adaptation strategy.

“The rainy season is projected to start in the third and fourth week of March, but that was preceded by drought. This means people don’t have money because they didn’t harvest in the previous season. If it rains now and you don’t have seeds, you have to first work for those with money, so that you can get money to buy seeds. By the time you get to working on your own farm, the rain has subsided. When you have seeds, that is no longer a challenge,” says John Wainaina, who leads the Kikopey Seed Saving Self-Help Group in Gilgil.

John Wainaina at his home in Gilgil Nakuru, where he hosts the community seed bank for members of the 20 -member Kikopey Seed Banking Self-help Group, 16 0f whom are women. Photo | Felista Wangari

Seed saving has been a game changer.

“We have seen transformation with the women when they are able to save seeds. They say that there are no more fights and quarrels because they are not asking anyone for money, and they have food. From this position, they have a voice at the table, respect and some independence. Giving a woman her own means of getting food doesn’t rely on another person is transformative,” says Ms Kamau, the gender officer at Seed Savers Network.

Ms Wangui, who shakes her head in disbelief when she recalls her journey from 2007 to this point, no longer has to worry about where the seeds or money to buy them will come from once the rains begin. She can also plant the seed varieties of her choice.

“When you start saving seeds and adopt better farming techniques, you don’t have to ask for money to buy seeds, salt or to go out and about because every day someone is buying your produce. You stop being a borrower because you now have your own seeds,” says Ms Wangui.

Eunice Wainaina, a teacher who practises farming with her husband Mr Wainaina of Kikopey Seed Savers Self-help Group, has 90 kilogrammes of bean seeds of various varieties in the seed bank — enough to plant on nearly five acres. She says that having seeds in the seed bank means that she can plant early, which is one of the recommended climate adaptation strategies to minimise instances of failed crops. In addition to seed saving and early planting, her family uses permaculture to conserve moisture in the soil and help the crops grow long after the rains have subsided. 

While Ms Wangui was initially sceptical about the concept, eating vegetables from her multi-storey garden changed her mind and turned her life around.

These days, Ms Wangui grows vegetables not just for her family’s consumption, but also for sale. She grows indigenous vegetables like terere (amaranth), managu (African nightshade), murenda (jute mallow) and spinach. Besides, she is now a food security ambassador, preaching the power of saving seeds and growing one’s own food in multi-storey or sack gardens.

In her community group, each member is required to save seeds in the community seed bank and establish two multi-storey gardens. Many no longer buy food because they have vegetables on their farms all year round.

“We don’t buy vegetables anymore. We have food security even in times of drought,” says Ms Wangui, adding that the seeds saved from seasons with good harvests come in particularly handy after seasons of drought.

Other adaptation strategies

Aside from saving seeds, the farmers in Gilgil also use other adaptation strategies like composting, mulching and planting of cover crops to mitigate the effects of erratic rainfall patterns. They also practise permaculture, collecting the run-off water in trenches and farm ponds, a climate-smart technique to save water in the soil for the dry season.

The farmers also practise hugo culture, a type of permaculture where the farmer digs a pit, lines it with tree trunks and adds dry leaves, top soil and manure. This serves as a sponge that stores water for crops planted in the pit.

How seed saving works

  • Seed selection begins at the farm, when farmers identify the good crops on the farm i.e. the crops that are healthy, are not infested with pests and that have bigger produce. These are the best crops to select seeds from. For instance, the farmer selects the maize crop with the biggest maize cobs
  • The selected plants are marked for easier identification during harvest.
  • After harvesting, the farmer removes the top and bottom seeds and saves the middle seeds for planting
  • Before the seeds can be saved in the seed bank, they have to be planted on their own patch, without mixing with other varieties
  • Once the seeds are selected, they are dried and saved in containers at the community seed bank and can be used for planting in the next season or be exchanged for different seeds at community seed fairs

This feature is supported by a grant from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Social Impact Reporting Initiative on Climate Change

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