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

Exchange Visit To Uganda

The team at Uganda

In strive to build capacity for staff, farmers and journalists (Mulembe FM and Seeds of Gold) in our network, we had a seed saving learning journey to various destinations in Uganda. The 5-day trip targeted interaction with farmers, government actors and Non-governmental organizations from Uganda to share their experiences and best practices in seeds saving.

They included; National Research Organization (Naro), National Gene bank, Bioversity International, GRAIN and Community Seed Banks. The team got an opportunity to learn from them on; Seed Revival, agro-ecological agriculture, seed multiplication, treatment and storage, Concept of Quality Declared Seed (QDS),Running community seed banks as business, records in the seed bank and Quality Assurance function the operations.

What excited us throughout the visit was the support of government and research institutions in promotion of community seed banks. The role of Ugandan National Research Organization (Naro), National Gene bank and Bioversity International was at the lips of every speaker. The team followed each closely hoping that one day this will happen in Kenya.

Kiziba Community Seed Bank at Sheema District of Uganda was the evidence of success due to this engagement. The members got initial seeds for multiplication from the National Gene bank and National Research Organization in collaboration with Bioversity International. Naro has been instrumental in building technical capacity of farmers for quality seed production.

At a community seed bank

At the heart of their work was to ensure farmers access seeds. This has made the government to move an extra mile and provide land for construction of the seed bank. The presence is also visible in day to day running of the facility as

the local area member equivalent to a chief in Kenya forms part of its leadership. He ensures that beneficiaries (farmers) repay back the loaned seeds in the ratio of 1:2 as stipulated in the by-laws of the facility. This prevents the incidences of defaulters aiding in the growth and expansion of the seed bank.

The support from the government and internal control systems has been the drive for its growth to a cooperative which was legally registered last year (2017). This has enhanced their work in community seed business in the area. The achievement has resulted into opening of other seed banks and seed distribution outlets to satisfy the demand for the seeds.

What encouraged us more was the progress and efforts at individual member level. We noted that members have adopted the idea and have developed their own seed banks at their households. About 1km from Kiziba Community Seed bank we accompanied Joyce as she led us to her home.

On arrival we found a group of women seated in a circle with smile on their faces perhaps they knew how knowledgeable we would be after the visit. Their t-shirts were branded ‘Joy and Family’ an in-

Joyce and family receiving us

dicator of ownership of the work and success in their homestead. As we sat down their leader introduced us and at this time we realized Joyce was an exceptional farmer.

Her role as a mobilizer in Kiziba seed bank also manifested itself at the family seed bank. She is a renowned farmer in the area and her work has received recognition in Uganda and internationally. In her hands she held certificates, pictures at seed fairs and trophy.

Indeed she is ‘the best farmer’ as the community refers to her every time when they are introducing her. Her farm was well organized with crop diversity and high soil fertility. As she took us through various sections of her farm the team was keen to grasp new concept to take them back home. As she took us through the banana plantation the team learnt how to use traditional trapping methods to control banana weevils. To our surprise it worked so well and at every trap we saw three to four weevils which were then physically crushed.

Her farm was spongy-like and we did not hesitate to ask her the secret. With smiles over her face she said, ‘the credit goes to agro-ecological farming. I use my crop residues by incorporating them in the soil especially banana to improve soil fertility.’ She then took us through the process of field management practices for banana which were insightful to the team.

All along she depicted dedication and efforts to learn on quality seed selection, multiplication and knowledge from every word she spoke. Farmers in the team got motivated and termed her as a role model. They felt the need to be pioneers and saw a brighter future in their seed saving work by setting the same standards here in Kenya.

At her homestead stands a structure which serve as a seed bank for the family. Inside were different colours, shapes and sizes of different varieties of seeds. Over 40 varieties of beans, sorghum, millet and local vegetables. The seed bank is well organized and at the corner we saw records and a weighing balance which showed commonality in the operations of the family seed bank with the Kiziba Community seed bank.

We were lucky to receive a cup of a traditional porridge made from fermented millet from the seed bank. This is one way the family seed bank try to value add some of materials which does not qualify as seeds. We then visited another local seed bank which shared the same attributes like the others. The team left the destinations empowered, informed and motivated to strengthen and grow our seed saving work here in Kenya.


Youths are the drivers of change and have potential to transform the population by igniting the spirit of agro-biodiversity conservation and adoption of ecological agriculture. The future of agriculture lies squarely on them as they will be the next policy makers, agripreneurs, private and public actors in this sector.Therefore,agricultural students graduating from universities and colleges require exposure on ecological agriculture and agro-biodiversity topics to deepen their understanding on the interrelationships between various elements in the ecology for a sustainable agriculture.
Some students from Bukura Agricultural College with their attachment supervisor

They also require interaction with the old farmers to tap traditional knowledge on local seeds on their uses, growth traits and cultural attachment. The old are custodians of the traditional seeds and knowledge but there is a risk of emerging a knowledge gap when they die.As our Kenyan Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and fisheries Willy Bett said recently, on average farmers in Kenya are 60 years old;this is alarming as we have fewer youths in agriculture.  Therefore  there is a dire need to engage the old to transfer their traditional knowledge on seeds to the youths.

Agricultural students should be all rounded by integrating ecological agriculture and agro-biodiversity conservation principles in their work. Learning only conventional agriculture exposes the Kenyan farming communities in danger of getting expert advice sidelining local based solutions.As an organization, we believe in giving the youths an opportunity to learn these key principles.Seed savers Network continues to offer attachment and internship to agricultural students. The students work with the farming communities in their day to day farm activities.This is to enhance inter-generational learning.(EAGLE,2008) defines it as a process through which individuals of all ages acquire skills and knowledge, but also attitude and values from daily experience, from all available resources and from all influences in their own‘ life world.

Seed Savers Network aim at changing the attitude of the students as the foundation of attaining the desired outcome. Students learn on the importance of saving local seeds and are engaged in identifying them in their respective localities. This is organized under experiential learning initiative where students from different Kenyan communities are brought together to share on their different traditional seeds.This is further built by engaging them in agro-biodiversity conservation work through traditional seeds saving working closely with the extension department. They are able to meet various farmers groups where they participate in the training. The students also own the idea and are expected transfer the same back to his/her community. Obtaining  traditional knowledge forms part of the inter-generational learning. Students work with the research department in documentation of traditional knowledge and seeds. This gives them the opportunity during data collection to tap the existing knowledge on local seeds and getting insights on their cultural attachment with the seeds. All this targets cultivating a new culture of appreciation of the rich benefits of conserving traditional crops heritage.


our office  library                                                              

The students are also provided with reading materials which are availed at our office library,internet connection for online desktop research and shown films on traditional knowledge and seeds.These resources aim at broadening their understanding on the mentioned two principles under our inter-generational learning programme.On ecological agriculture, the students get opportunity to interact with other students from Tertiary organic institutes like Manor House and Baraka Agricultural College. In addition, our staff has rich knowledge and training on ecological agriculture. The students are trained through our Extension Department where they are guided after the training insetting up a demonstration in our farm.

The practical sessions helps the students to internalize various ecological agriculture elements learnt.These demonstrations has been useful in training farmers,other stakeholders and students during our open days. The students are instrumental during this time as they are expected to explain their demonstration to the visitors.

A student preparing a key hole garden for his demonstration
Therefore, Seed Savers Network recognizes the need to train the youths from tertiary institutions,secondary school(Agriculture and environment clubs) and farmers groups to appreciate the role of agro-biodiversity conservation and ecological agriculture in realizing sustainable agriculture.