By Simon Mitambo from African Biodiversity Network (ABN)
A good day is seen in the morning. This is an African Swahili proverb. In Swahili, we would say; “Siku Njema Huonekana Asubuhi”. This proverb would perhaps best describe how the day started and unfolded during our field visit to Gilgil. We had gone there to visit farmers that work with Seed Savers Network. Seed Savers Network is a partner of the PELUM – Kenya and a potential partner of the African Biodiversity Network (ABN). That Wednesday morning of 18th April, 2018, I woke up very early at 5.30 AM. I joined my colleagues at SACDEP Training Centre for breakfast from 6.00 AM. We were set to leave to the field at 7.00 AM sharp and so we hurriedly took our breakfast and packed lunch. As I sat down for my breakfast in that short moment, I could not help the joy of Mother Nature. Through the window the Sun rise was spectacular as it went up into the sky. The clouds were moving helter-skelter forming unique patterns. One of these patterns that formed at the horizon resembled a group of elderly men seated in circle. They appeared to be in deep thoughts, probably contemplating beauty of agro-ecology and networking.
We were a group of about 40 Agro-ecology practitioners from ten African countries namely; – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Malawi, Nigeria, Somalia, Zambia and host Kenya. We were one great team together with Bread for the World SEWOH project team; Corinna, Uli, Maria, Bekele and Robin. Patrick Ochieng came in to support with rapporteuring of the proceedings. We had gathered at the SACDEP Training Centre for a week’s regional workshop on Agro-ecology and Networking
Setting off for the field visits.
My group was the first to set off at around 7.30 AM. We cruised through Aberdare Ranges covering close to 200 KM from Thika to Gilgil. We enjoyed beautiful sceneries and rich biodiversity along the way. We made a stop-over at one point where we enjoyed a nice view of Mt. Longonot. This is a strata volcano mountain located in the Great Rift Valley.
For the practical on-site observations and discussions on Agro-ecology and networking, we were divided into three groups. One group visited coffee and tea farmers working with PELUM-Kenya. These were the OACK tea farmers in Kangari and the SACDEP2 Coffee Farmers Cooperative in Kamwange. The second group visited G-BIACK farmers working around bio-intensive agriculture on small surfaces in peri-urban and rural areas. The third group which I belonged, visited Seed Savers Network in Gilgil. The aim of these field visits was to learn from communities and also share with them our experiences from different parts of Africa to inspire them. We were also to exchange good ideas on Agro-ecological practices and networking for synergy and cost-effectiveness.
Learning and experience sharing.
By 11.00 AM we had safely arrived at the Seed Savers Network offices. We were warmly welcomed and got to know each other before we were taken round the backyard to see and learn from their demonstration garden at the centre. These included the seed bank, composting, seed bulking, preparation of pesticides, sack and pipes gardens among others. We retreated to the hall where we were given the story of origin of the organization. They shared their experiences on their work with communities citing the areas of their strengths and those for improvement and their future plans. It emerged that their work is farmer-driven and their focus was on those seeds that farmers like because of economic purpose. They do trainings for their farmers based on such needs. They are currently documenting and describing community seeds to protect them from bio-piracy and patent. They have a diversity of 36 varieties of beans and 10 of maize. The seed bank at the centre contains seeds that are grown by their farmers. They have a program known as Fruits for Schools where they support schools to plant fruit trees in their compound. Their major challenges was in advocacy to advance the farmers’ rights. This is something they are planning to work more on. We concluded with questions and answers session at the hall before we left to meet with the community.
At the community, we were told the story of the group we visited. We were told that they started in 2015 with about 18 members and have now grown to a membership of 60 members. They have a communal community seed bank but we visited a seed bank for one of their members. Before they established the community seed bank, they used to have challenges of getting seeds as they could eat everything and especially during drought season. Other times they were forced to look for money to buy seeds from the shops and plant late. The establishment of community seed banks helps to make seeds more available for planting. They also exchange and sell their seeds to the general community. They keep their seeds in the seed banks up to the maximum of one year for planting each season. They were trained by Seed Savers Network on seed selection, saving and participatory plant breeding. They select best seeds at the flowering stage where they label those seeds that are flowering fast. They use traditional knowledge and practices for treatment of their crops. We saw them apply ashes and diatomaceous Earth. The area has two rainy seasons; long and short rains.
Other than seed work, the group also engages with other activities to supplement their income. These include merry-go-rounds, table banking and savings. In merry-go-round every member contributes an agreed amount of money which they put together and give one of the members for support. They then go round through the list of all members and when they are done, they come back to the first member again. In table banking, they contribute money for shares and loan members at a little interest. They also save money to support general development of the members.
Like other small scale farmers in Africa, the group members have challenges of loss of seeds owing to drought and adverse effects of climate change. They have lost such seeds like sorghum and millet and certain varieties of beans and pigeon peas. They use manure and terraces to keep their soils healthy though they have challenges of doing terraces on the rocky ground. Young people are engaging well with farming though on a low level.
The farmers were strong in practising all the four dimensions of Agro-ecology, namely: – economic, political, ecology and socio-cultural. Comparatively, they were even stronger on the economic dimension. It emerged that the economic dimension was one of the driving force for their farming practice. For instance, most farmers were planting maize because it was fetching good sales when sold in bulk. They were keen to improve on the political front which was their weak area. They were working very hard to connect with other organizations and networks to bring out farmers voices for policy influence.
Closing the circle.
We gathered at the shores of Lake Elmenteita; a beautiful soda lake. We sat in a circle for our late packed lunch. We enjoyed a great spectacle of wildlife flying around us – very beautiful Horn beaks, African Spoonbill, Flamingos among others. The day was coming to close at a very good tone. Earlier at SACDEP we had feared to be rained on in the field. Instead the day came out to be beautiful and cool with limited sun-shine. It was such a great learning mission. We all left the field feeling fully soaked with new ideas and insights. We drove back gently and arrived back at the SACDEP Training Centre at around 8.00 PM.