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Is seed recuperation possible?

A story from Kathulumbi village in Kenya

Anne Maina

10 / 2010

Residents in the village of Kathulumbi in Kenya are building a seed bank to help strengthen biodiversity and access to uncontaminated seed varieties. Traditional staples like cassava and millet have been largely replaced by more cheaply available genetically modified varieties of maize. By preserving traditional seed varieties, villagers in Kathulumbi want to make seeds affordable, sustainable and more nutritious than their genetically modified counterparts.


As the sun rises this early February morning, Mumo jumps from her bed to prepare the family breakfast delicacy, millet porridge. She and her family like to take porridge for breakfast as it is filling and can get them through the day without lunch. Once in a while they take the porridge with sweet potatoes or cassava but these are hard to come by these days. Bread has become very expensive and Mumo says she cannot afford it for breakfast. Even the millet has to be sourced from far away, where some farmers still grow it and the prices sometimes are too expensive.

Mumo and her five children live in Kathulumbi village, about 100km outside of Machakos town in the Eastern Province of Kenya. She was recently widowed and was forced to move to the family plot since she could not afford the rent in Machakos town where she was teaching in a primary school.


Mumo grows predominantly maize on her quarter-acre plot because it is the staple grain for preparing ugali, or sima, as some would call it in Kenya. She says remembers when she was young people grew and consumed more of the traditional tubers and crops like yams, cassava, millet and sweet potatoes. But things seem to have changed with modernisation. Is this why people are no longer healthy and suffer numerous diseases? Even young children now have diabetes.

When ‘Mrs. Mumo’, as her students called her, moved to Kathulumbi, she found the community organised into a group calling itself Kathulumbi Seed Bank Community Development Committee. The local chief, Maleve, urged her to join the group and support the community in their development efforts.


Kathulumbi Seed Bank Community Development Committee works closely with the INADES Formation in Kenya. INADES is an active member of the African Biodiversity Network (ABN). ABN is a network of African organisations working in 12 countries, seeking to revive biodiversity and associated knowledge from the ground up, hand-in-hand with communities.

ABN works on the principle that the traditional ecological knowledge held by Africa’s communities is the key to ensuring the long-term resilience of the continent’s forests, ecosystems, food security and dignity. The ABN supports the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC), a consortium of more than 65 farmer organisations, animal welfare networks, consumer networks, faith based organisations; and community-based groups. Members are stakeholders and have an interest and work in the areas of environment, agriculture and biodiversity.


Why a seed bank? The community in Kathulumbi area realised that with the introduction of new seed varieties from companies in Nairobi, food production went down. The older members of the group remembered a time when well-dressed officials of multinational companies came to the village and introduced the ‘magic maize seed’ which was said to produce more than local indigenous varieties. They were supplied with fertilizers and pesticides together with the ‘magic maize seeds’.

In the first few seasons, yields went up prompting more people to allocate more of their land to maize production. However, with time, the soils required more fertilizers and pesticides to tackle pests like the maize stock borer. The biggest challenge was that in case of a delay or insufficient rainfall, the maize crop died before maturity. The farmers previously used to save their seed for the next season, but with these new seeds, they needed to buy new ones from the local agro-veterinary shops, otherwise the yield would be compromised.

The local extension worker called these seeds ‘hybrids’. There was even talk of genetically modified organisms. With support from KBioC, some of the seeds sold at the agro-veterinary shop were tested and found to be contaminated with GMOs. To make matters worse, the maize harvested started developing aflatoxins, which can be toxic if consumed.


The community was at loss. The elders held a special council meeting to discuss the food security challenges they faced. They discussed and realised that the biggest mistake they made was to forget their indigenous and traditional foods. There is a popular Swahili saying that says, ‘Usiache mbachao kwa msala upitao’, which means, ‘Do not leave what you have at hand, for a passing cloud’. The elders resolved to take a lead in reviving and revitalising local seed varieties that had always withstood the test of time.

The role of women in the recuperation of local seed varieties was seen as key in ensuring the community at Kathulumbi was able to achieve food self-sufficiency. Older women were tasked with passing on this skill to the younger and professional women like Mumo. This traditional seed saving system was not all about yield, but encompassed all cultural aspects. Seed was chosen for special ceremonies like making millet beer for weddings. Different seed was also selected for different seasons. In times of little rainfall, the more hardy seed was planted. There was also a variety of crops planted, not just maize. Cassava, yams and millet are some of the hardy crops that were supplemented.

Mumo says she was happy to join the community in its efforts to revive and recuperate traditional seed varieties. With support from Arid Lands Resource Management Project, a community seed bank was built and people were encouraged to save and share varieties that had almost become extinct.

Now, the farmers in the community do not have to buy seed from the shop every season, since local varieties can be selected and planted without compromising on their productivity. Children no longer suffer from malnutrition and lack of a balanced diet. They now eat healthy meals.

The year 2010 has been blessed with sufficient rains, and yet in February, the Kenyan government approved the importation of over 280,000 tonnes (3.2 million 90kg bags) of a mixture of genetically modified maize into the country. This is in spite of the Kenya Biosafety Act 2009, which has not yet taken effect through the enactment of relevant regulations.

The walk towards a seed-secure Kathulumbi is still long and there are many challenges, especially with the threat of GMO contamination. The people of Kathulumbi want their area to be a seed-diverse and GMO-free zone, and they are keen to ensure that it happens. The challenges are great but they have begun a new thing.

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