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THE VERTICAL

Beatrice Wangui's Fight for Seed Sovereignty in Kenya

Farming has always been a bonding point between my father and me. When I ventured into agriculture, I only understood food systems from the point of small-scale farming. As a way of learning, my father would often bring some seeds and cuttings when he went somewhere new. This was one of the ways we introduced new foods to our small farm and onto our plates. In 2012, the Kenyan government enacted a law that made seed saving and exchange illegal, thereby posing a threat to an indigenous system of seed exchange that has persisted for eons.


When I arrived at Beatrice Wangui’s house she was showing farmers how to build a vertical garden. Her home is an oasis in the dry Gilgil area and a large group of farmers, local and from other countries, stood around her as she showed them how to make a blend of manure, charcoal dust, and soil to grow vegetables in. This is a regular activity on her small but well-sectioned agricultural island. One side of her farm is a thriving bunch of vertical gardens teeming with leafy greens. Corners on the ground spot herbs like mint and rosemary. There is a short spread of beds hosting at least six varieties of managu (black nightshade), terere (Amaranth), mitoo (slenderleaf) and saget (spider plant). Now 59 years old, Beatrice has been an organic farmer for many years as well as champion of seed sovereignty.


Indigenous communities in Kenya have had to work around the systemic effects and hurdles in the way of corporate capture of seeds, promulgated in the form of millions of US dollars by international seed companies to monopolize the seed sectors in Africa. I wanted to dive into the world of seed saving to see how people responded to or worked around the law that criminalized these traditions.


Beatrice training a group of visitors on creating vertical gardens. Photo courtesy of the author.

Seed sovereignty upholds the farmer’s right to save, use, exchange, and sell his or her own seeds. Seed regulation in Kenya began in 1972, ten years after the country gained independence. The Seed and Plant Varieties Act of 1972 entered into force in 1975, was promulgated in 1991, and later amended in 1994. While Kenya joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, the country had already enacted its own unique (sui generis) law on Plant Breeders' Rights (PBRs). However, this PBR law did not take effect until 1999 after Kenya ratified the 1978 Act of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). In 2012, Kenya updated its PBR law through the Seeds and Plant Varieties (Amendment) Act. Then, in 2015, the country furthered its commitment to UPOV by ratifying the 1991 UPOV Convention, which outlines stronger protections for new plant varieties.

  

Today, seed saving is an essential part of Kenyan livelihoods, especially in rural parts of the country. In Kenya, 70 percent of the rural population is dependent on agriculture.

 

As a child, I remember when my parents would return from visiting new places with some form of seed propagation. They could be suckers for a new vegetable, vines, or a handful of seeds – all a means to grow the crops that caught my parents’ interest. This was how I came to know and love a vegetable called rhubarb.

 

In many rural homes across Kenya, kitchens are not only a space to prepare food. Hanging on walls, under the traditional fire racks near the fireplace are seeds tied up in leaves along with calabashes. The warmth from the fire dries them out and the smoke makes them nearly pest-proof. Smoking is one of the most traditional modes of seed saving. In many communities, other methods such as diatomite, cow dung, soot, and ash are used. This is a tradition for most, if not all the communities in Kenya.


Slenderleaf pods at Beatrice’s farm. Photo courtesy of the author.

Punitive Seed Laws


The Seed and Plant Varieties Act of 2012 criminalizes farmers from “selling, sharing and exchanging” unregistered or uncertified seeds. Farmers who break the law risk a prison sentence of up to two years or a fine of up to a million Kenyan shillings.


Beatrice says she refused to keep silent in the face of laws that promote corporate greed over the lives and livelihoods of communities across the country.


She joined other farmers and civil society organizations as a petitioner in a case against the law prohibiting seed saving. The alliance of farmers and activists has courageously spoken up against the laws, arguing for the rights of small-scale farmers to save, exchange, and use their seeds freely.


Their persistence and hard work has inspired farmers across Kenya to join their cause. They hold seed exchange fairs to fight for the right to cultivate indigenously obtained and retained seeds. Apart from them, fifteen other small land-holding farmers have filed a petition to the court to amend the law. 


Speaking to Beatrice feels like a plunge in a well of seed preservation knowledge. On a tour of her seed-saving facility, she pointed out the strategic use of all the materials she had on hand. She explained how each element played a role in ensuring the survival of seeds for up to years in glass bottles. Even though her village has no piped water, the facility carries stacks of jerry cans filled with water. The water helps keep the temperature low which reduces heat damage. The room is also low and near the ground.


Beatrice at her community seed bank. Courtesy of Gregory Onyango

As custodian of the community seed bank, Beatrice is tasked with ensuring that the seeds are in tip-top shape by the time farmers come to collect them. 


“Farmers bring in their seeds after drying them,” she says. “And they must wait at least a season before they come to get seeds. A farmer cannot take all the seeds at the same time. There was a year we had two failed rainy seasons and only the last batch of the seeds made it.”


It begins with inspecting the seeds for moisture content. If the seeds do not pass this test, the farmer is required to take them back and reduce the moisture content to the required level. The next step is to check out the seed's germination percentage. "This is done by picking about 10 seeds, placing them in a bowl, and covering them with a wet tissue. In about 5 days, we observe how many out of the ten have germinated," Beatrice explains. If three or fewer seeds germinate, it means the germination percentage is low and the seeds are not of good quality and cannot be stored. Depending on the quantity of seeds, some are stored in airtight glass bottles while others are stored in buckets. A film of ash from special trees and bushes is spread over the seeds to keep both moisture and pests off. 


 

With help from organizations such as The Seed Savers Network, Beatrice has been able to increase her knowledge and capacity for seed saving.  The Seed Savers Network was registered in 2009 and to date, has helped establish more than 52 community seed banks, including one that Beatrice looks after.


The Seed Savers Network, she says, taught them seed characterization which is a process they follow from when they plant a seed to when they harvest it.


Beatrice Wangui in her garden. Courtesy of Gregory Onyango

Beatrice is keen on passing on this knowledge to her children and grandchildren. Her granddaughter who is named after her and attends a local secondary school, is very hands-on with the project. She has grown up around her grandmother and has learned how to tell different varieties apart and how to preserve each of them. “When she is around and I have visitors, she teaches them just as well as I can. She understands how to handle seeds and crops alike,” she shares. For Beatrice and others like her, awareness of such methods and passing on their teaching is an integral part of the process without which indigenous knowledge would disappear.


With help from organizations such as The Seed Savers Network, Beatrice can meet other seed savers from across Kenya and the world. As she shows me around, explaining varieties of maize, beans, tomatoes, and vegetables she hopes the indigenous knowledge, varieties, and preservation are not stifled by punitive seed laws. As she fights for indigenous seeds through the law and by practicing traditional methods, she hopes her cross-generational efforts pay off and the indigenous crop varieties stand the test.


Beatrice is one of many people and organizations working to maintain the state of seed sovereignty. Despite the immense challenges posed by the corporate consolidation of the seed industry, the movement for seed sovereignty continues to gain momentum around the world. From seed libraries and seed swaps to on-the-ground breeding projects, countless individuals and communities are taking steps to reclaim their ancestral seed heritage and maintain biodiversity. By resisting the privatization of this vital common resource, seed savers stand as stewards of food security and biodiversity for present and future generations. Though the battle is an uphill one, the remarkable resilience and creative cross-pollination within the seed sovereignty movement offer a path toward a more regenerative, equitable, and sustainable food system. 

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Rise by Ian Njuguna.

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Profile
Kenya
Seed Sovereignty
Agriculture
Farming
Beatrice Wangui
Seed Saving
Indigeneity
Indigenous Seed Exchange
Seed and Plant Varieties Act
Agrarian Economy
Rural Farmers
Seed Savers Network
Seed Banks
Community Building
Gilgil
Nakuru County
Sustainability
Food Systems
Organic Farming

PIERRA NYARUAI is a Kenyan journalist with a focus on food systems, women empowerment, sustainable development goals and human interest, based in Nakuru, Kenya. Over the past five years, she has been looking for and telling the stories of African women in agriculture, their role in the world’s food systems and the nutritional and economic side of Africa. She has written for The Continent, Mail & Guardian and The Insider-South Sudan.

Profile
Kenya

IAN NJUGUNA is a visual artist born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, where he currently resides. He works in Illustration, motion design, and graphic design. Njuguna's art style is characterized by a blend of whimsy and photorealism, often weaving together elements of fine art and cartoon styles. His practice is a commitment towards what he calls "African stories."

PIERRA NYARUAI

An indigenous warrior’s quest to challenge Kenya’s punitive seed laws is emblematic of the nature of indigenous knowledge and preservation, as well as that of agrarian labour writ large.

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