WINDHOEK – Farmer Obed Dlamini, like many of his colleagues from Swaziland, finds it difficult to access maize seeds each planting season. Not only are these seeds expensive but they are often not consistently available in the market.
“Farmers in Swaziland operate on guesswork because suppliers often bring in new seeds, some of which do not necessarily work for us,” said Dlamini.
Dlamini is optimistic that this situation will improve soon because Swaziland is among four countries in the SADC region where the Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Network (FANRPAN) is piloting a project on Harmonised Seed Security Project (HaSSP).
Together with Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Swaziland agreed to work on the project that is going to remove legislative barriers that restrict the movement of seeds within the four countries.
“In Swaziland we don’t even breed our own seeds but buy them from elsewhere yet the coming in of seeds is restricted which makes them inaccessible to farmers because when a new hybrid comes in it has to be tested for four years before it’s accepted,” said Dlamini.
Dlamini, who is also a HaSSP elder responsible for coordinating the project in Swaziland, is attending the 2010 Annual High Level Regional Food Security Policy Dialogue in Windhoek.
According to Dr Bellah Mpofu, a consultant for HaSSP at FANRPAN, restrictions on the movement of seeds in the SADC region because of agriculture legislations contribute to food insecurity.
“HaSSP aims to domesticate and implement the SADC Harmonised Seed Regulatory System whose goal is to contribute to improved food security of smallholders in the SADC region through increased availability of and access to improved seed varieties,” said Mpofu.
Through HaSSP, the four countries will test different hybrid seeds on their soil and if they work, they are going to share the seeds. After this pilot project, which started this year and ends in 2013, these four countries will share their findings with the rest of SADC.
The actual testing and sharing of seeds has not started yet.
“The idea is that if the seeds grow well for two countries, then they can be shared by all countries,” said Mpofu.
If a hybrid grows well in South Africa, for instance, there is no need for Swaziland to undergo the same testing procedures running for many years, which is what has made the Kingdom to be seed insecure.
Mpofu said the SADC protocol does not cover genetically-modified seeds, which are only acceptable in South Africa.
“Countries will still do their individual tests to be sure of what they are receiving,” she said. “Seeds won’t be imposed on countries when all the SADC countries have started to implement the protocol.”
Although the ministers of the four pilot countries have agreed in principle to the project, which runs between 2010 and 2013, only Swaziland has signed a memorandum of understanding with FANRPAN.
“The four countries agreed that they are going to implement the Technical Agreements on Harmonisation of Seed Regulations in the SADC Region but it’s also important that they sign the MoU because that sort of validates their commitment,” said Mpofu.
She said HaSSP seed elders, who are people tasked with the coordination of the project in their respective countries, will try to ensure that their ministers of agriculture sign the MoU.
Dr Sam Muchena, the managing director for African Centre for Fertiliser Development whose expertise is dwarfed maize breeding, said on his return from the FANRPAN Annual High Level Regional Food Security Policy Dialogue, facilitating the signing of the MoU would be among his priorities.
“This is a SADC initiative and our government would not like to be left out,” said Dr Muchena. “That’s why when I get home I’ll arrange to meet with either the secretary of agriculture or the minister to discuss the signing of the MoU.”
Because her government has signed the MoU, Thabile Gooday, a farmer and HaSSP elder from Swaziland, is going to work with the Ministry of Agriculture Research Centre to educate farmers, especially women, on the importance of the project.
“We need to get farmers to be interested and understand clearly what HaSSP is about and how the harmonisation of seed policies within the region is going to benefit them,” said Gooday.
Noting that Swaziland is a small country but with different ecological zones, she said opening up for more seeds to enter the market could benefit farmers based in dry areas where most seeds do not germinate.
The preservation of seeds is also among Gooday’s priorities in Swaziland because, she said, while most farmers are now using hybrid seeds, it is also important that they preserve indigenous seeds.
“Women back home complain about expensive farm inputs – seeds being one of them. If they had knowledge about cross-pollinated varieties they could cut down on costs and be able to produce enough, at least for their families,” said Gooday.
She said some people have used the indigenous seeds for a long time because, either they prefer the taste of the maize from these varieties, or they cannot afford the ever-escalating costs of hybrid seeds.
“But a farmer cannot plant the offspring of hybrid seeds because it doesn’t produce any yield,” said Gooday.
Mpofu also concurred with Gooday adding that HaSSP is going to support the use indigenous seeds through community seed projects where farmers are going to be encouraged to continue using indigenous seeds that work for them.
“We appreciate the use of indigenous seeds which some farmers still prefer because of dietary and taste preferences,” said Mpofu. “We’re not throwing away anything.”
For now, seed preservation is not exactly a priority among country, which is why the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC) in Zambia is collecting seeds among member countries to store them.
Thandi Lupupa from SPGRC said, because some countries are not preserving their seeds and might find that they have run out in the future, they could turn to SPGRC to get them.
“Indigenous seeds are very important because you also need them to breed hybrids,” said Lupupa.