Our students left class last week equipped with a sack of high-quality bean seeds from a reputable African seed supplier and the knowledge to preserve those seeds for future seasons. Although most of the students currently practice some form of seed saving, they don’t understand how to select and store them properly and often struggle with low germination rates. Much of the traditional knowledge about seed saving and the local seed stores were lost during the two decades of conflict in northern Uganda.
Buying seeds has its own set of challenges, however. If farmers buy seeds from the market at the beginning of the growing season, edible seeds like beans are typically five times more expensive because supplies are low at the end of the dry season, when people live off of stored food from the previous growing season and famine is common.
Buying improved hybrid seeds from a seed supplier can be a great investment, but typically costs more. There is also a big issue in Uganda with “fake” seeds. Due to low regulations for seed companies, there is a high occurrence of bad seeds that either don’t germinate or do so at very low rates, even though the seed packets may tout a 99% germination rate. These “fake” seeds can be difficult to track down and enforce regulations on because there is no way to pinpoint the source of the problem. The seed could have been stored improperly, expired, replaced or filled with a cheap decoy, or planted poorly. The responsibility can shift from the farmer to the village seed dealer, to the distributor, to the agro input company, to the research organization, to the regulators — and at the end of the day, nobody can be held responsible.
In class, Calvin discussed the pros and cons of using different seed supplies, and taught about how to properly select and store seeds at home. Heirloom varieties originally purchased from a reputable seed supply company can become an investment that lasts years if the seed is saved in a home seed bank. Selecting seeds from the strongest plants with desirable traits can improve the percentage of plants with those traits in the next generation. Eventually, the seeds become well-adapted to the microclimate of that farmer’s fields. Hybrid varieties from seed suppliers can still be saved, but the traits in the next generation may be variable and have lower yields, depending on the nature of the hybrid.
Through the community mentorship program, our students will be creating seed sharing networks within their own villages between their household and the 5-10 households they will be mentoring. While we had initially planned on establishing a community seed bank in a central location, we decided that due to the logistical difficulties of getting personnel to manage the seed bank and the need for a structure in a central location, it made more sense to instead create home-based networks managed by the village communities.
At the end of our class, we practiced a little seed saving with a heirloom watermelon I brought from the market. I cut up the watermelon into bite-sized chunks, and luckily, it happened to be full of seeds. The students ate a piece and then put the seeds in a pot of water. Some volunteers demonstrated the cleaning process, rinsing the healthy seeds while pouring the pulp and bad seeds off. Each student took home a baggie with a small handful of seeds to dry and store or plant in their garden. One student told me excitedly that if he was able to produce even one melon, his small bag of seeds was eventually going to fill his field with fruit.
After class, we distributed the bean seeds to the students. The seeds were an improved variety from an agro input supplier that Calvin knows is reputable. Along with the cabbage seeds and sweet potato vines, the bean seeds were one of the purchases we made with the discretionary funds from project donations. Especially after just finishing the class on seed saving, there was a hopeful feeling in the air as the seed sacks were distributed. Each seed carried the possibility for food, for abundance, and for future prosperity as the generations of seeds are shared in the community.