Growing up in the rural village of Kibandahasara, I often saw members of our community growing different varieties of indigenous foods that were used to nourish their families. From rice with a very good aroma to different kinds of traditional vegetables, the farm was a beauty to behold especially during the school holiday season when I would get a chance to participate in this fulfilling work of producing our own food.

I didn’t like it then, I would have preferred to play with my friends from a ‘rich’ neighbour who could afford to hire people to do the farm work.  Many are the times I saw my mum exchanging seeds with some aunties and neighbours. They would bring a variety of cow peas and get a different kind of beans for instance. As a child I grew up knowing that this is the norm across different communities. 

I was taken back last year when I learnt that there is a seed law in Kenya that bars farmers from selling, exchanging or sharing seeds that are not registered. When I came across this seed law, the first thing that crossed my mind was my community back in the village. The seeds they use are indigenous, most of which are community owned. The idea of registering community seeds is unheard of.

Seed sharing is not only part of the culture and tradition of my community but also of many other communities across Kenya.

What’s in a seed, you may ask? Seed is the fundamental input that cannot be missed in food production or in a farmers store. Seed is the source of life. It is critical in food production, nutrition, agricultural development and securing livelihoods. Without seeds farmers are not able to produce any food.

Seed sharing is not only part of the culture and tradition of my community but also of many other communities across Kenya. It’s key in sustaining local farming communities and livelihoods.  Indigenous seeds represent our culture, our people’s way of life, a rich tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation. 

However, this practice is now under threat from policies and laws that seek to control the seed sector across the world such as the Seed and Plant Varieties Act. The 2012 punitive seed law criminalise farmers for selling, sharing and exchanging seeds that are unregistered and uncertified. This legislation, punishes offenders with a prison sentence of up to a maximum of 2 years or a fine of up to KES 1,000,000.

The law has remained obscure with only very few Kenyans being aware of the full extent of its punitive nature. Farmers,  Civil Society and a select  group of Kenyans  have publicly criticised the law terming it as a tactic to control Kenya’s food system and rid the local farmers of their livelihoods.

This is despite the fact that farmer-managed informal seed systems such as farm harvests, local markets and seed sharing supply over 80% of the seeds whereas formal seed systems which include certified seeds supply only 20% of the seeds used in food production. 

Farmer-managed seed system thrives largely on seed saving, sharing and exchange which also form part of cultural practices from different ethnic groups in Kenya. Farmer-managed seed systems provide equal access to seeds to farmers regardless of their economic status. A lot of the smallholder farmers have access to community seed banks which allow them to access and share seeds indigenous every planting season. 

Farmers cannot afford to purchase seeds for every planting season. With indigenous seeds they are sure of getting the seeds they need, when they need them. Why does the government want to oppress smallholder farmers by abolishing the use of indigenous seeds? This punitive seed law provides a leeway for big business to exploit Kenya’s food system. This may result in Kenya’s farmers being knocked out of a self-sufficient system and be locked in a debt cycle by depending on seed companies for seed supply.

Indigenous seeds on the other hand are acclimatised to the local climatic conditions and are likely to survive extreme weather conditions. They therefore increase the farmers ability to adapt to the climate crisis. Criminalising their use exposes farmers and consumers to food insecurity associated with long periods of drought. Indigenous seeds are critical for building viable and diverse crop populations.

It is time for the Kenyan government to amend the punitive seed and plant varieties act cap 326 to allow smallholders to freely sell, share and exchange their  seeds. Denying farmers these rights will reduce diverse seed access further aggravating food and nutritional insecurity in the country as witnessed in the recent past. Policy should also support the informal seed systems which are critical in supporting agricultural production.