Experiential learning Journey at Seed Savers

By Simon Mitambo from African Biodiversity Network (ABN)  
The team at Seed Savers Network                                                                     

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[1] tea farmers in Kangari and the SACDEP2 Coffee Farmers Cooperative in Kamwange. The second group visited G-BIACK[3] 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[4] 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.

Interacting 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.


[1] WWW.oack.or.ke

[2] www.sacdepkenya.org

[3] www.seedsaverskenya.org

[4] www.g-biack.org


Existing Seeds legal framework locally and internationally continue to prioritize complete ownership of seeds by individuals. This is done through provision of intellectual property rights. This limits the freedom of farmers to save the seeds. As an organization  we have realized an ideal system in addition to farmers seed system called Open Source Seed System that encourage breeders not to patent the seeds but declare them Open Source.

This has been made possible by learning from Hivos. This ensures that seeds remain free for use with no limitation. The system enhances seeds as a public good free to all. In team of three we have been analyzing the existing legal framework to identify challenges and opportunities for Open Source Seeds in Kenya.

We have gathered views from Kephis and Gerri which have enriched our paper and deepened our understanding on the implication of the system on seed freedom. So far the paper is at a draft stage. This will be published for a free access to the public as well like-minded organizations. The findings will then be disseminated through our online platforms. This will be done after a launch where various stakeholders and farmers representatives will be invited.

As a network with farmers saving local seeds we have integrated this concept where farmers are packaging and labeling their seeds Open Source Seeds. So far this has been done for local vegetables. This is also denoting the communal ownership of the seeds which is part of their cultural heritage.

We also try to bring plant breeders and research institutions to embrace the system and declare their seeds as OSS.This will ensure that farmers are free to use the materials for multiplication, propagation and in improvement of their crops. The system promotes existence of economic justice and enhances food security through diversity.


As the size of land decrease small scale farmers continue to apply excessive fertilizers and chemicals to increase food production. This has also been evident also in modern farming where fertigation has been developed to supply fertilizers, soil amendments and other water soluble produce to the crops through irrigation. Foliar spraying has been growing to increase the size of the produce or give it desired colour based on the consumer preferences.

However this approach requires more and more application of the inorganic inputs to increase production each time. This makes the cost of production very high which impoverish small holder farmers as the agro-companies to the bank smiling. In addition the relationship results other effects which are shouldered by the same farmer.

The farmer destroy his soil with macro/micro nutrients imbalances, development of acidity/alkalinity, killing of useful organisms, increased cost of production which minimizes his/her profits, health hazards; through inhaling/coming into contact with the chemicals, consumption of food with  bioaccumulation or drinking contaminated water.

In view of this, Seed Savers Network has embarked on training farmers the interrelationship between the environment and agricultural sustainability. We try to bridge the existing gap in raising their awareness on the implications of increased use of inorganic fertilizers and chemicals on future agriculture and generations. We have been reaching farmers through farmers’ field school, field days, farm and the media (Mulembe FM, Radio Amani and Inooro TV) to sensitize them.

We have training on farm made solutions to control pests and increase the fertility of their soils. Bio-intensive farming has also been integrated to increase production and diversity in a small portion of land. We continue to enhance use of liquid organic fertilizer that enables small scale farmers to apply it as foliar and ensure production of vegetables vertical bags and hanging gardens which also conserve water. These technologies are ideal for farmers with small pieces of land and especially for urban and peri-urban farming. Different crops can easily be intercropped in these gardens.

We encourage planting of Tithonia and comfrey at their farms for source of raw materials which we distribute to the

Extension officer showing farmers Tithonia

m during training. These crops also have additional benefits to farmers as source of fodder to livestock and fence for Tithonia and as a local vegetable for Comfrey. Farmers rearing rabbits are also encouraged to use rabbit urine in making the liquid manure.

The aim of making liquid manure is to quickly provide a crop with adequate natural plant food during the growing season. Liquid manure is ready for use after two or three weeks compared to six weeks or more for compost. The liquid manure which is made from bio-slurry or animal manures supplies nutrients fast.

When using farm yard manure, farmers are advised to mix them and put in a sack or a gunny bag. This ensures the liquid manure comprises high level of nutrients. The bag is then suspended in a bucket with clean water which is readily available at their homes. They are then guided on how to cover it using suitable material available. The farmers then wait for three weeks where they dilute it at a ratio of 1:2 (liquid manure to water) for application as a foliar or through drips to their crops.

The same concept applies for farmers with rabbits where they harvest it and ferment it for 21 days. It is well covered and farmers can dilute it at the same ratio for use. When using plants we advise them to use green and young ones. Flowering and fruiting plants has less nutrients required. Tithonia and Comfrey are the crop we use in our work as they contain high level of macro-nutrients (Nitrogen, potassium and Phosphorous).Materials are chopped and put in a bucket with water. They are covered and stirred after four days. The process continues up to 14-21 where it is diluted and applied to their crops.