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Fiona Chipunza on the fight for farmer-managed seed systems in Southern Africa


The introduction of corporate-controlled seed systems and seed policies to enforce them by some African governments poses an existential threat to farmers’ seed supply. Farmer-managed seed systems, by contrast, represent a strong and viable alternative to corporate seeds, but require support from various actors to serve as a basis for sustainable food systems. Jan Urhahn of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Food Sovereignty Programme recently spoke with Fiona Chipunza, a Programme Officer at the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), about the fight for control over seed systems in Southern Africa.

JU: Why is seed so important to farmers?

FC: Seed is the foundation of life. Small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa understand seed as sacred because of its profound symbolic nature. It is used in celebrations and ceremonies to mark the transition between seasons and is used in rituals and offerings at sacred natural sites, shrines, and other spiritual places and moments. In these traditions, seed and knowledge are one, and it is very much a part of women’s identity, knowledge, and power. Seed is thus a source of people’s pride, authority, autonomy, and joy. Farmers who are seed breeders and custodians tend to be highly respected and play a vital role in traditional governance systems, as well as being responsible for nurturing the family and community with nutritious foods. This bio-cultural diversity that exists in spite of colonialism, globalization, and the industrial growth economy provides the bedrock for resilience to the climate crisis.

The control of seed is highly contested. Who controls seed today?

The commercial seed market is controlled by the corporates in the form of agro-dealers distributing them along with other inputs such as pesticides. Big corporates breed only a very limited number of hybrid seeds, or even worse—GMO seeds. Many African governments favour corporate seeds, as they are seen as a panacea to end poverty and hunger. However, research has shown that hybrid seeds are more susceptible to pests and diseases, while high yields can only be achieved under laboratory-like conditions. Farmers cannot reuse hybrid seeds and need to buy them year after year.

Why are international seed companies expanding into African countries?

Seed markets in many parts of the world are saturated. International seed companies are expanding into Africa because they want access to new markets in order to generate profits.

Fiona Chipunza works as a Programme Officer at the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF). ZIMSOFF was formed by marginalized smallholder farmers, particularly rural women, to amplify their voices and enhance their meaningful participation in ecological and sustainable agricultural policymaking processes and practices. ZIMSOFF is member of the global peasant movement Via Campesina. She spoke with Jan Urhahn of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in December 2019.

How do African states support corporate seed capture?

The latest threat to Africa’s rich heritage of seed diversity comes in the name of “seed harmonization policies”. They have been condemned by African small-scale farmers’ movements and civil society networks as a “new wave of colonialism”. These policies threaten to cut small-scale farmers out of the seed production system, and contradict Article 9 of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)—especially farmers’ right to save, use, exchange, and sell their farm seed. Small-scale farmers and women in particular face being ousted from their role as seed custodians, and could be criminalized if they exchange or sell seed. Many African countries have introduced Farm Input Subsidies Programmes (FISP). They are largely used to distribute hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers to small-scale farmers. Therefore, FISPs play a pivotal role in financing and delivering Green Revolution technologies, securing guaranteed, subsidized markets for multinational seed corporations.

How are farmers and their seed systems affected by this?

FISPs and other programmes result in farmers’ becoming dependent on and indebted to costly, (imported) inputs. This is not only financially unsustainable, but creates more vulnerable food systems and further marginalization of small-scale farmers. Farmers become reliant on corporate (mostly hybrid) seed, which cannot be saved and/or replanted and requires soil-depleting fertilizers to reach optimal yields. The current wave of subsidies under FISPs are reinforcing inappropriate, unsustainable, and inequitable practices. Although agricultural investment is crucial, how this is done is vital in order to build sustainable and resilient food and farming systems that will holistically address hunger, poverty, inequality, and the challenges posed by the climate crisis.

Farmer movements and civil society organizations present farmer-managed seed systems as the alternative to corporate-controlled systems. How would you define farmer-managed seed systems?

Farmer-managed seed systems are sometimes referred to as informal seed systems. Under a farmer-managed seed system, seed is not treated as a commodity—it is the farmer’s basic right. Seeds are seen as the first link in the food chain and the repository of life’s future evolution. As such, it is the inherent duty and responsibility of all farmers to protect seeds and pass them on to future generations. The growing and exchange of seed among smallholder farmers has been the basis of maintaining the stability of biodiversity. Farmer-managed seed systems are culturally appropriate, practical, customary, and inclusive. But without access to quality, affordable seeds and the self-determination to save, select, and share seeds, no farmer or consumer can fully attain sovereignty.

In many instances, states support corporate-controlled seed systems. What could they do to promote farmer-managed seed systems instead?

First of all, states must recognize the importance of farmer-managed seed systems. In order for the policy framework to be conducive to them, farmers and their organizations must be involved in the policy-making processes on seeds and other agricultural issues. Public research must focus on farmers’ seed systems and not on corporate ones. In particular, participatory research approaches must be introduced. Public policies must support farmers’ seeds. For example, FISPs could focus on farmers’ seeds instead of corporate ones. Last but not least, states should implement international agreements such as the ITPGRFA or the new UN Peasant Rights Declaration into national law. The Peasant Rights Declaration, for example, defines a human right to seed for the first time in history.

What role do civil-society organizations have to play in supporting farmer-managed seed systems?

Despite the importance of seed in contributing to the attainment of Sustainable Developments Goals (SDG) and the SDG 2 to end hunger in particular, there is a gap in knowledge and understanding of farmer-managed seed systems. This is because little research and documentation has been done on seed initiatives, and not much support or resources are channelled towards promoting practices that conserve biodiversity. Failure to invest resources in seed work demonstrates the urgent need to work with small-scale farmers to cope with rapid and unforeseeable change, and strengthen their ability to sustain a balance between long- and short-term efficiency. There is a need for civil-society organizations to consolidate farmers’ efforts and speak with a unified voice in support of their seed systems, which in turn facilitate social cohesion and a sense of pride while promoting a sense of belonging.