A drive from Kampala, the capital of Uganda to Mbarara, the western side, leaves one grinning with envy as they transverse this rich agricultural country.
One sees acres upon acres of bananas, the staple food of the nation. Most farmers have intercropped the banana plant with other crops, in particular beans.
Our guide tells us that the practice not only helps in the utilisation of space but also the beans help in fixing nitrogen in the soil.
I am accompanying a team of farmers from Kenya to visit a farmer who has mastered the art of conserving traditional seeds and consequently her farm has become an agro-tourism centre visited by tens of people from across the world.
The Kenyan delegation is mainly from the Seed Savers Network based in Naivasha. The team is engaging in the trade on small-scale and would wish to learn the craft further to expand.
Soon, we arrive at the Joy and Family Demonstration Farm in Kagango village, Sheema District.The director, Joy Mugisha, is ready to receive us and take us on a tour of her seed agro-tourism centre.Joy has become a major seeds-prenuer in the area, with farmers christening her the ‘Seeds Encyclopedia’ for her exceptional art of conserving tens of various local seeds.
Her journey into seeds entrepreneurship dates back in 2010, when she was trained by an NGO on conservation agriculture.
She later became one of the founders of Kiziba Seed Bank Cooperative, an organisation in Uganda from which farmers take loans in form of seeds and pay back with seeds. She initially doubled as a quality assurance officer before rising to the position of vice-chairperson.
But five years ago, she established her own seed bank as a ‘side hustle’, starting with three varieties of beans, but has since increased to 46.
“I had the three varieties on my farm, while I got the others from neighbours and some from the cooperative society,” says Joy, adding that she is still working on getting more seed varieties, including those of maize. Other seeds her agro-tourism farm hosts, besides beans, include those of amaranth, millet and sorghum.
LABELLED WITH THEIR TRADITIONAL NAMES
The colourful seeds are all labelled with their traditional names such as Nunu Maroon, Kibanya-Rwanda Pink, Karesu, Kanyombwa and Nabe, among others. They are neatly put in traditional sisal bowls that are arranged on tables inside the 12m by 15m building.
“This is the Nabe14 bean variety. It grows very well where there is moderate rainfall,” she explains, and continues, “This is the Nunu Maroon bean variety. It is close to what is commonly known as Wairimu in Kenya. We use it for making stew served with matoke,” she says.
The seeds are different from the hybrid ones because they are part of the Ugandan culture. With the traditional seeds, she says one can replant them severally.
Joy’s charges for visitors vary, with individuals paying UgSh20,000 (Sh572), organised groups UgSh150,000 (Sh4,286), Schools UgSh100,000 (Sh2,858), foreign groups UgSh200,000 (Sh5,715) and individuals UgSh50,000 (Sh1,429).
The seeds centre is visited by at least 100 people a month, both individual and group guests. While most of the visitors are from Uganda, Joy also receives guests from Italy, Netherlands and Kenya, her guest book shows.
The charges are exclusively for viewing and getting knowledge on the various indigenous seeds from Uganda, with most of them being bean varieties that were under a threat of extinction.
Joy says she got and still gets most of the seeds from farmers in villages across Uganda and multiplies them on her farm.
She sells the seeds for planting from her seeds tourism centre, as well as at a shop which she has opened at the nearby Kibwohe Trading Centre.
The price depends on the seed variety, but they go for between UgSh2,000-UgSh3,500 (Sh85-Sh100).
To ensure there is no cross-pollination, she says she plants various varieties of crops at different times so that they do not flower at the same time.
“I normally monitor the crops closely and uproot any that is different from the others,” she says, explaining the knowledge she has on traditional seed production is from Bioversity International. “At flowering stage, I also uproot any crop whose flowers that are different from the rest.”
ENHANCE SEED SECURITY
She plants beans in neat rows, each block with a different variety. After harvesting the produce, she carefully selects any ‘foreign’ substance like soil before drying. She does not use any chemicals to preserve her seeds. She burns cow dung, grinds it into dust and mixes with ash to make a traditional preservative that protects the seeds from pests for up to two years.
In Uganda, farmers are allowed to use what is called the Quality Declared Seeds (QDS), which are produced by farmers themselves. Under this law, farmers can exchange and sell seeds. They also have certified hybrid seeds, giving farmers a variety of choice.
Joy sells about 2 tonnes of various seeds annually, some of which she sources from the cooperative when demand is high.
In 2016, Joy was named the top farmer by the Ugandan government and other partners for her exclusive effort in conserving seeds and her unique agribusiness of having a seeds tourism centre.
She has exhibited the traditional Ugandan seeds in Kenya, Netherlands and many parts of Uganda.
Dr Gloria Otieno, an associate scientist on genetic resources and food security policy, says Kenya needs to establish a system that will enhance conservation of indigenous seeds.
“I work with farmers to look for useful traits that can be suitable for breeding to produce seeds that can withstand climate change. The quality of some of the traditional seeds is as high as the commercial ones and could even be better as they have been grown in the area for ages,” she says.
However, she says local seed breeders have to work with agricultural experts in selecting the best quality seeds.
“The fact that farmers can produce their own seeds enhances seeds security bringing down cost of production.”
Seeds Savers Network Director Daniel Wanjama says the Kenya government should work with farmers to establish a seed system that allows exchange and sale of seeds among themselves.
“Currently the Kenyan seeds system is dominated by seed companies yet farmers have preserved seeds locally for years and some still do. Our system ignores such expertise,” he says.
What's a seed bank
Seed bank helps to store and preserve seeds for genetic diversity.
Seeds stored are preserved for their genes, which plant breeders can use to increase yield, disease resistance, drought tolerance, nutritional quality and taste of plants.
Many plants that were used centuries ago are currently less used, thus, seed banks offer an opportunity to preserve historical and cultural value.
The seeds are stored low temperature and moisture loss is guarded to preserve the genes.
May 10, 2018: Correction
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the research-for-development organisation Bioversity International.