While saving seed on-farm is common practice, many farmers also rely on other seed sources, like local markets. When the rains start, however, the demand for seed may be so high that the market fails to supply it in a timely way. Fortunately, smallholders have their own creative ways of meeting the need for seed, as we recently found out.
On our first day of filming in Bawku, a small town in northern Ghana separated from Burkina Faso by a river, we are amazed by farmersâ€™ ingenuity and drive to succeed. We are making farmer training videos on onions under a scorching sun, in 40 degree heat. Issah Bukari, like many other farmers, grows onions in the dry season because that is when onions are attacked by fewer diseases.
To our surprise the river has no water. Women carry their babies on their backs and push their bicycles across the dry riverbed. Every year, the border between both countries changes from a wide river to a winding, sandy avenue.
Issah shows us a ten-meter wide circular pit he has had dug. We begin to realise how much effort it takes to get water in the dry season.
â€śI pay a lot for people to dig the well. Every three days they have to dig deeper to get enough water. But it is worth it, because in the dry season water is gold.â€ť
Issahâ€™s garden is quite diverse. Papaya, mango and cashew trees grow scattered across his fields. On the edges of some of the sunken beds, healthy looking maize is grown. Not as a cereal crop, but as a snack: roasted maize cobs fetch a good price this time of the year. We also see some hibiscus plants used to make a refreshing, red lemonade.
â€śHow come you grow some scattered groundnuts in the dry season?â€ť I ask Issah.
â€śThis is my guarantee to have groundnut seed by the time the rains come,â€ť he replies.
By growing groundnuts for seed on the edge of the sunken onion beds, the groundnuts profit from the irrigation water given to the onions.
Groundnut seed, like many other legume crops, is rich in oil and gets quickly rancid in warm climate. Farmers therefore cannot easily save groundnut seed for the next season.
As illustrated in â€śAfrican Seed Enterprisesâ€ť, farmer groups and private seed companies that provide legume seed in one season may struggle to guarantee supply in the next.
Continuity of supply is a big challenge. Sometimes seed enterprises cannot get enough foundation seed themselves to grow enough legume seed when farmers need it (except when large orders are placed in advance by development projects).
To deal with the uncertainties of access to water and access to seed, farmers like Issah Bukari innovate with cropping patterns, space and time.
Seed agencies are often highly critical of farmersâ€™ practices to save seed, claiming that farmer saved seed does not even deserve to be called seed at all. As we see here, there is a lot more to saving seed than simply putting it in a sack (or â€śbrown baggingâ€ť as the practice is sometimes disapprovingly called). Farmers use creative solutions, sometimes going to great efforts to produce small amounts of the varieties they need, in the dry season, to have seed ready to meet the rains.
Van Mele, P., Bentley, J.W and GuĂ©i, R.G. (eds.) 2011. African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. CABI Publishing, UK, 256 pp. Downloadable from: http://agroinsight.com/books.php