It's the seed that has the money

From Swaziland to Zimbabwe, in this hostile climate environment that has brought drought to many, seed production seems to be the way to go. International organisations have targeted women to grow seeds for resale, a move that has tremendously improved the lives of women in the communities where the projects are undertaken. In Siteki, a group of women have become entrepreneurs to be reckoned with in seed production. In Zimbabwe, they are streets ahead. MANTOE PHAKATHI reports.

A seed producer at her community of Shololo, a few kilometres outside the small town of Siteki, eastern Swaziland, Mary Ntshangase has turned her misfortunes into a money spinner. Following a severe drought that hit the Kingdom in 1992, she was no longer producing enough food for her family of eight. The staple food, maize, is no longer a viable crop in some parts of the country, particularly the Lubombo Region. This region is the driest part of the country where the majority of farmers depend on rainfall.

Before turning to seed farming, like most Swazi farmers, Ntshangase grew hybrid maize for subsistence but her crop was destroyed by the midseason dry spells. At a vey small scale, she grew sugar beans and jugo beans which her family used to eat with relish. She realised that while she harvested close to nothing from the maize fields, the legumes were doing much better and decided to produce more.

“Although the heat was destroying the crop, I kept hoping that the climate would Mary Ntshangase with her children displaying her seeds at home in Siteki. The Nation November 2013 39 improve and kept cultivating the maize for many years,” said Ntshangase. “I never imagined that I could forget about maize and try other crops that would be able to suit the new weather patterns.” At that point, she was not aware of the climate change phenomenon and thought that the drought was going to last for a short period and that things would get back to normal.

Meantime, she continued to increase the production of the legumes which she sold to her community. But since the Ministry of Agriculture introduced her to seed production in 2004, her farming has taken a different twist – for good. “Instead of farming crops for food, together with other farmers we were trained to produce seed so that we can sell to other farmers in our community,” explained Ntshangase. She now specialises in drought-tolerant seeds including jugo beans, cowpeas, peanuts, rice bean, beans, mung beans, and sesame, which she sells to other farmers in dry areas. She also produces Open Pollinated Varieties (OPV) of maize (otherwise known as indigenous seeds) and sorghum.

In 2005 she founded Sizeze Farmers Association which is a group of 15 women who are in the same business. “There are very strict precautions that you have to follow when cultivating seed as opposed to crop because the seed has to be tested if it germinates to the required standard,” she explained. Farmers take their seeds to the Ministry of Agriculture’s Seed Quality Control Section (SQCS) for testing and, if they make the mark, they are then certified and made ready to be sold. SQSC is also helping the farmers brand their products and get access to the market. The farmers also received fertilisers from Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), which they said improved their yield. “I never used fertiliser when cultivating legumes because I thought it was unnecessary. But the use of fertiliser has worked wonders for me and other farmers,” explained Ntshangase.

But more needs to be done to improve the market, which Virginia Magongo, who is the treasurer of the association, said needed to be expanded because the yield from the fields is improving. Although they buy inputs together so that they can get a discount, they cultivate on their individual fields. They also sell as individuals but if there is a bigger order then they supply as an association. “The local market has become too small for us and we’re still working out a strategy of going national,” said SFA member, Khanyisile Gina. She said the association is also trying to lease a farm from government so that they can work together from one place, which would make it much easier for the farmers to meet the demand as they now plan to go nationwide.

Land is a challenge for many farmers. There are about 10 associations of women doing similar work bringing the number of farmers in this project to over 100, all from the drought-stricken Lubombo Region. There are very few men in this business. In fact, there are less than five. This movement was created by the Ministry of Agriculture in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in response to the drought. For many years, farmers have been persistent in their cultivation of maize, which is the country’s staple food, although they received very little or no yield at all because of the drought.

“We want our farmers to understand that because of climate change, drought is going to be a part of their lives and they must now learn to adapt,” said FAO assistant representative-programmes Khanyisile Mabuza. By cultivating legumes and selling their seeds, farmers from the drought-stricken areas can afford to buy maize from their Mary Ntshangase showing off her seeds. 40 The Nation November 2013 counterparts who are based in wet areas. The FAO has predicted that world food production has to increase by 70 percent to be able to feed the nine billion world population by 2050.

However, owing to the erratic weather patterns, production is shrinking. For instance, Swaziland is failing to produce enough maize. According to the 2012 Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC) report, there was a 34 percent shortfall in maize production in the country which had to be met through imports. There is also a serious shortage of legumes in the country for both food and seed. “It used to be very difficult for farmers to come across seed inputs for legumes because these are marginalised crops in the country,” said Mabuza.

Mabuza said FAO requested the Ministry of Agriculture to train women farmers in seed production and entrepreneurship. In 2008, FAO then invited the seed producers to their Input Trade Fairs (ITF) as part of the vendors where poor farmers received E650 vouchers from FAO to buy farming inputs, including seeds and fertilisers. “That is where more women started showing interest in seed production,” said Mabuza. She said legumes are considered “women crops” and men do not pay attention towards them. As a result, there was a deliberate effort by FAO to target women to grow legume seed varieties, which are very important in balancing the diet because they are a source of protein.

“Women also form the majority of farmers in the country, at over 70 percent, and it makes sense to ensure that they have enough inputs to do their farming,” said Mabuza. She also said there was a deliberate effort by FAO to target dry areas because legumes tend to withstand dry conditions. According to SQCS operations manager, Chris Mthethwa, while there are maize hybrid seed varieties designed to withstand dry conditions, OPVs tend to be more drought tolerant because they grow in staggered stages even when planted at the same time. “This helps the crops to cope with the erratic weather patterns because the sun might hit when some of the crops are ready for harvest although others might still be immature.

“At least the farmer is able to get something,” said Mthethwa. He said legumes are drought tolerant by their nature because, unlike maize, they do not consume a lot of water. South African-based seed scientist Wynand van der Walt also supports this view adding that legumes are short season crops and, like sorghum, they have traits that are not found in maize that make them to be more resilient. He said while it is true that OPVs tend to be drought tolerant, for many years plant breeders have selected some varieties with hybrids that are able to withstand drought.
But Mthethwa said while it is true that some hybrids are drought tolerant, many subsistence farmers do not have enough resources to buy these varieties because they tend to be costly for them. “The advantage with indigenous seeds is that you can replant their offspring yet that is not possible with hybrids,” said Mthethwa. “With hybrids, every planting season you have to go back to the shop.” While SQCS is responsible for ensuring that only quality seed is circulating in the country, it is also training the smallholder farmers to be the best producers and to know how to manage their businesses.

He said the multinational companies are also reluctant to sell indigenous seeds because they are not as profitable as their hybrid counterparts. That is why government with FAO decided to mobilise smallholder farmers to produce the indigenous seeds whose taste many Swazis enjoy. For now, he said, the farmers are selling within their communities because the whole idea is to satisfy the local market. “We believe that seeds should start from the community then migrate to shops,” said Mthethwa.
A similar movement is taking place in the Zaka District of Zimbabwe where about 400 farmers are also producing drought-tolerant seed. Unlike their Swazi counterparts, these farmers have gone a step further and are exporting their seeds to other countries including Swaziland and Zambia. What is more, these farmers have established their own company that processes the seeds and sell, taking the local market and beyond by storm. Formed in 2011 in response to drought that is also a challenge to farmers in Zaka, the company sent its first consignment of a tonne of beans to Swaziland this month. “Last year, we exported a similar amount of the same seed to Zambia,” said Zimbabwe Super Seeds (ZSS) operations manager Simon Maffumo.

This company was founded in response to the drought with the support from GRM International and FARNPAN who provided technical support and inputs to the farmers. GRM donated the equipment and treating chemicals to the company. “The farmers are running the company although they get technical support from us,” said GRM’s Nelson Munyaka. “By 2015 when our support comes to an end, they should be able to sustain the company on their own.” ZSS is the ideal model in the promotion of FANRPAN Harmonised Seed Security Programme (HASSP). Swaziland and Zimbabwe are among the four pilot countries including Malawi and Zambia, working on aligning their seed legislation with Southern African Development Community (SADC) Seed Regulatory System.

According to HASSP programme manager, Dr Bellah Mpofu, this pilot project will ensure an easy movement within the SADC region of seeds produced from the participating countries. “This will improve the access to and availability of quality seed to smallholder farmers,” said Mpofu. And ZSS is proving to be the right model in ensuring that this dream is fulfilled by already finding a market outside the country. After harvesting, the farmers bring their seeds to the processing plant which is situated within the Zaka District where they do the purity and quality tests.
Officers from Zimbabwe Seed Services travel all the way from Harare to do the tests instead of the farmers making the long trip. “But for seed that we are exporting, the officers from Seed Services go to Zaka to get samples and go to do the tests in Harare,” said Munyaka. The ZSS processing plant is where the farmers bring their produce for testing, treating, packaging and branding before the stock is sent to the agro dealers. “I’m always sold out on stock from ZSS,” said agro-dealer, Priscilla Munodawafa who also sells products from multinational companies. “Last year I received half a tonne from ZSS and I sold everything.” The demand has grown and this year she received 2.5 tonnes of stock from ZSS. She said farmers are happy to try out a product that was produced from their area because they know that it will do well. One of ZSS’ biggest customers is Zaka Cowpea Growers Association (ZCGA), a group of 1 500 farmers specialising in the production of cowpeas for food. They buy the seed from ZSS.

ZCGA chairperson, Power Nemauku, said they are not disappointed. “It’s the first time we’ve used ZSS and the yield was very good,” said Nemauku. Although cowpeas are a popular relish and snack in Zaka, he said ZCGA has a challenge in accessing the market and more needs to be done to cultivate it. “Right now we’re sitting with 8.25 tonnes of cowpeas and we’re struggling to dispose of the stock,” he complained. Like their Swazi counterparts, the Zimbabwean seed growers are very happy that at last they have found a solution to the drought and that they are able to make a bit more money compared to when producing for food.

“We’re guaranteed the market when selling our seed because the local farmers seem to prefer buying from us,” said Esther Tarumbwa, a farmer. “Selling seed is also more profitable than crop.” A kilogram of maize seed fetches $1.40 (E14.00) while the same amount of crop would sell for $0.60 (E6). “Our lives have improved. Not only are we able to put food on the table but some of us are electrifying our homes and paying fees for our children,” said Jennifer Chida, another farmer in the project and mother of five. This is just one way Africa is showing the world that it is not just a victim of climate change but its people are doing their best under the circumstances.