Seed As Power:Reclaiming Seed Sovereignty

Leonida Odongo
Posted August 12, 2021 from Kenya

Seed is at the centre of a struggle in many parts of Africa and the world at large .Indigenous seeds are under siege from a dominant narrative that paints anything traditional as archaic and backward , to legislations that criminalise age old Afro-centric traditions of saving , exchange and sharing seeds , to multinationals choking the continent with sales of seeds and agro chemicals and with researchers keen on advancing Genetic Modification trials under the guise of increasing global food security. For thousands of years, Africans have exchanged and saved seeds and these have been passed on from generation to generation. Farmers selected seeds best suited for the local soil, climate and food culture and shared these amongst each other.[1] The reality is that 90% of seeds sown in Africa come from ‘informal’ sources, local markets, or seeds saved by farmers or their neighbours – the majority of whom are women. It is these seeds that are providing 80% of Africa’s food[2]. They are reliable, available and affordable, but the seed giants want them outlawed. These seeds and the cultural systems and knowledge that underpin them are under threat from policies designed to privilege corporate seed systems, while criminalising and vilifying farmer managed seed systems.The other glaring question is where is Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) when  researchers go to communities to  make inquiries about productivity of indigenous varieties?.

To an African, seed is not just seed, it has cultural and social meaning. Seed in the African context symbolises life, continuity into the future, it is a birth right. Seeds are used during ceremonies such as marriage, some communities use seeds as a gift to the ancestors thanking them for a bumper harvest.

Agriculture was one of the major casualties of the IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1970s and this trend continues to date because smallholder farmers are never supported by states, this is despite producing 80% of the food consumed globally. The kind of support that may come to farmers are mainly in form of seeds and chemical fertilisers. These seeds in essence chain smallholder farmers to a system that is alien, where they have to depend on seeds not from their homesteads but those from agrovets, depriving them of them of seed sovereignty and making them slaves of agrovets. As Cidi Otieno of Kenyan Peasants League aptly put at the concluded Civil Society Mobilisation on UN Food Systems Summit “We can't talk about seed sovereignty when we don't have seeds , if you don't have seeds you are a slave”. The push for patenting is another monster endangering seed sovereignty amongst smallholder farmers. Seed is also an element of control. Ever since the giant corporations started gaining control of the seed market globally[3], they control and dictate what is being grown in Africa and they are minting millions from the sale of seeds and chemical fertilisers. Monopoly control based on property rights is the new norm of seed distribution.[4]Seed sharing under these forms of corporate control is being outlawed. Farmer Managed Seed Systems (FMSS) are derogatorily being referred to as inferior, non- yielding and backward. They are also increasingly being painted as disease and pest infested and that  is why corporations are coming with industrial seeds  simultaneously with chemical packages ready to sell to African farmers.

A visit to an African homestead, rarely will you find a granary, in the past every homestead had a granary signifying availability of food and no visitor was left hungry.. It is a contradiction in that agriculture is a backbone yet millions of African citizenry go hungry or skip means because they cannot afford 3 meals a day.

Legislations are coming up all directed towards seeds and crops popularly known as Crops Act as well as Plant and Seed Varieties Acts. A glance at seed related legislations across Africa tells you that many if not all countries are introducing punitive clauses within their seed laws where farmers are liable to various forms of punishment including hefty fines and  jail terms if they go contrary to the provisions of these legislations. Sometimes these legislations border on absurdity. Take for example a legislation  that forced farmers to be registered in order to get support from the government or a legislation that introduces seed monitors  to come and monitor what the farmer is growing, what happened to the right to privacy as contained in national legislations.

What of introducing a list of scheduled crops under which a breeding program is put and  engaging in these scheduled crops without a licence is breaking the law. What will happen to the world if all farmers are jailed over seed related legislations. Why introduce hefty fines to farmers  while some farmers do not even own land and are leasing the land on which they produce food?

It is very scary the way legislations get introduced without public is often assumed that the public will somehow get to know about these legislations  and respond effectively. The question is how many farmers can afford newspapers every day in order to keep abreast with potential legislations  being advertised on the newspapers? why not engage them through community radios , if indeed participation is to be meaningful ?  because every farm household at least has a radio and vernacular language is understood by all farmers. Not giving famers opportunity to interrogate seed related legislations also interferes with their right to information.

The onslaught of seed legislations is not only happening at national levels but also at the regional levels. Such include the harmonisation process of seed laws at the AU , and this sadly is done without the input of farmers who when these legislations pass are going to be negatively affected. The seed harmonisation procedure involves elements such as: seed certification, seed quality assurance , variety evaluation , release and registration, Intellectual Property Rights , biosafety and phytosanitary measures, seed production (protection of farmers’ rights and breeders’ rights) seed marketing, packaging and labelling  as well as institutional arrangements. The introduction of Intellectual Property Rights is detrimental to Farmer Managed Seed Systems because  of issues of pollination. In Africa we cannot zone our farms , we depend on bees and butterflies as pollinators. In case they carry pollen from protected varieties and land on a farm which had indigenous varieties , what happens ?

The push for GM trials is happening at a fast pace, GM cowpea is now being released for commercial purposes in Nigeria. Cowpea is now  registered and approved for release to smallholder farmers in Nigeria and the new variety carries a microbian insecticidal gene making it resistant to a major pest that affects this crop.[5]Nnimmo Bassey a renowned environmentalist and activist at a conference on  “Promoting Nigeria’s Biosafety Media Training” for journalists in Lagos, noted by saying  why small scale farmers leave the soil enriched, GMO products destroy it, endanger the health of consumers and negatively impact on the ecosystem. According to Nnimo, 80% of food in the world is produced by small-scale farmers using 26% of the resources, so what is needed in Nigeria is not synthetic food, but protection and aid to farmers[6].Seed merchants know too well that Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and therefore bank on the population as  a market for GM products including fertilisers.

 The push for GM is being felt in many parts of the African continent. Closer home, Kenya recently approved GM cassava[7] , the argument for supporting these GM trials is often said to be enhancing “food security”. Genetic Modification is being pushed down citizens’ throats and heavily supported under the guise of ensuring food security or reviving a failing  cotton industry. And now the situation is getting even more scary with gene editing .

It is sad to note that many African governments are  in support of industrial agriculture and are clouded by modernisation , the question is why and how do you modernise when your grandparents cannot control seeds , which is heritage inherited from their forefathers. How do you even imagine passing a bill which will make your elderly grandfather or grandmother or elderly parents be arrested for breaking something they are unaware of.

Privatising both land and seeds is essential for the corporate model to flourish in Africa. With regard to seeds, it means having governments require that seeds be registered in an official catalogue in order to be traded[8]. It also means introducing intellectual property rights over plant varieties and criminalising farmers who ignore them. In all cases, the goal is to turn what has long been a commons into something that corporates can control and profit from. To secure  and increase their profits  , these breeders  tend to protect their investments  in seed research  through patenting and this is part of the reason why research for indigenous or Farmer Managed Seed Systems is never funded  and farmers seeds are being labelled as non-yielding .In reality speak to any farmer and they will tell you it that they can detect a difference in the taste of food between seeds grown  through an industrial system and those originating from indigenous seeds.

African farmers are not taking these onslaughts on indigenous seeds in silence , they are fighting back through  organizing seed fairs aimed at sharing and exchanging seeds, they are organizing seed libraries and Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) as part of intergenerational learning on seeds from elderly farmers to young farmers, communities are organising forums to talks about seeds and document  indigenous seeds as we knew them and their characteristics from our ancestors. Now more than ever before is the ripe moment to prove to the world that indigenous varieties are more resilient, tastier and more nutritious, now is the time for Africans in Africa and other like-minded people to change the narrative that indigenous food is not backward, it is in fact more superior than industrial food systems. Africa is tired of being the dumping site for rejected and obsolete products including agro-chemicals[9] as Million Belay of AFSA put it Africa needs to breathe[10] by removing the choking knee of multinational corporations and philanthro-capitalism in the seed and agro sector from dictating what is eaten and produced in the continent


Cover Photo [email protected] Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA)

[1] Both ENDS Discussion Paper 2018, UPOV 91 and Trade Agreements : Compromising Farmers Rights to Save and Sell Seeds


[4] ibid







A Growing Culture


This story was submitted in response to Human Rights for All.

Comments 4

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Aug 12
Aug 12

Hello sister. Thank you for your story and your work. I am so proud and I love the fact that the majority of farmers are women and that they hold their rich heritage so dearly. The passing on of seeds from generation to generation is not just another trend, but it has symbolic and cultural value. Opportunists or money loving giants will without a doubt try to weave their way into the system. Thank you for your story. So interesting and factual.

Much love.

Leonida Odongo
Aug 15
Aug 15

You are most welcome dear Meg,

Thank you for reading and the comments/



Nini Mappo
Aug 13
Aug 13

Aww just so lovely seeing that lady and her jembe and her uteo of seed varieties within an African compound. It brings back memories of home, of planting season, of how you 'never cooked the mbegu' no matter how hungry you were, and the barter trade of exchanging this variety for that. There is art and culture and history stored in a seed, and all these mega agro companies wanting to control the seed so that they can control what the world puts in their mouths is just wrong.

I was reading about how sukuma wiki and silverbeet (we call it spinach, but it's silverbeet/collard greens) were introduced to western Kenya at the expense of traditional vegetables and the nutritional deficiencies that ensued.
I am encouraged to hear that African farmers are returning to their seeds to preserve indigenous varieties.
Thank you for the insights into this critical issue of our time.
I hope you are going well,

Leonida Odongo
Aug 15
Aug 15

Thank you for reading Sister Nini.
Yes we are waging a war of corporate takeover and we need to resist now more than ever before and now we are being fed bio-fortified food , so sad



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