Blog post by Carol Thompson
“They called and asked to buy sorghum and millet seeds from us.”
This simple statement reversed more than 25 years of derision and outright scorn of the idea that smallholder farmers in Southern Africa could propagate good quality seeds for planting, instead of grain.
The decades of public denigration from agribusiness claimed smallholder farmers did not know how to propagate seeds, but even if they did, it was the wrong ones. Commercial agriculture calls the small grains of sorghum and millet “coarse grains”, “feed grains”, as if they are not fit for human consumption. And if a few could grow out such seeds, they would be of low quality, genetically weak with low germination rates, certainly not officially registered. Such seed propagation was only for “African subsistence farming”.
By November 2020, after years of drought, a commercial seed company approached a Southern African network of smallholder farmers to source sorghum and millet seeds to sell as far away as Burkina Faso, and to regional customers such as Angola, Tanzania, and Mozambique. The staple commercial grain, hybrid maize, was not withstanding the increasing heat and drought from climate change. Harvests failed.
In 2017, smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe established a farmer-owned cooperative seed enterprise, that chose to propagate and sell just a few seeds: pearl millet, sorghum, groundnuts, cow peas, open-pollinated maize. Reflecting careful decisions and planning: First, the varieties are the ones farmers value; it is their choice, not one coming from a private corporation interested in profit as the primary seed characteristic. As revealed in discussions among community seed bank members, farmers have several preferred characteristics for selecting seeds: length of growing season, inputs required, resistance to pests, taste, color. Second, the varieties are ones generally not propagated nor sold by the industry; the farmer seed enterprise is targeting not large-scale farmers, but rather the majority of farmers who grow local foods for household, community, and regional consumption. Third, the seeds can be registered as standard seed grade, testifying to their agronomic viability.
When the large commercial seed company called asking to buy sorghum and millet seeds, they were admitting that these grains, both indigenous to the African continent, were no longer the “wrong” seeds for food production. Pearl millet was domesticated 4000 years ago, recognized early for easy storing for long periods of time without insect damage. It is nutritionally superior to wheat or rice, and its higher oil content provides energy, along with high protein and lysine. With more than 140 varieties available for adaptation, pearl millet tolerates marginal soils and withstands high temperatures and aridity.
Sorghum also tolerates an array of soils and different varieties can withstand water-logged or arid conditions, growing in temperate or tropical zones. It also provides food and nutrition security through its ability to store for years. Its nutritional profile is equal to wheat and maize, but higher levels are possible if one uses the whole grain or ferments it. Across the continent, sorghum is slightly fermented to release nutrients for breakfast cereal, especially for young children. Both millet and sorghum can be prepared in all the ways maize can, from popping kernels to flat breads to brewing and especially, the African staple food of thick porridge (sadza, nsima, ugali, oshifima, pap).
The commercial seed company officials had to negotiate sales with the manager of the farmer seed enterprise, who is an expert in seeds as well as in business operations. It was probably the first time they had to negotiate equally with a female manager, but her knowledge and authority simply reflect the fact that many of the experts choosing seeds to cultivate are female farmers.
She informed the potential buyers that an experienced team of intellectual property rights (IPR) lawyers wrote the sales contract, in ways to discourage any future attempts to privatize the seeds under a corporate label. What made this warning appropriate is that Bayer-Monsanto and other global seed giants hold shares in, or outright own, what appear to be Southern African commercial seed houses. The officials signed a multi-year contract—affirming that smallholder farmers hold the seeds to food production under climate change.
This farmer seed enterprise is ensuring production, supply, and distribution of seeds, chosen by farmers, which are adaptive to their ecological conditions and utilisation requirements. It offers seed and nutrition security in this time of volatile climate change.
Carol Thompson, activist scholar, has learned from and worked with smallholder farmer networks in Southern Africa for decades.
Affiliation: Professor emerita, Political Economy, Northern Arizona University
Address: 8555 Silver Spur Rd
Flagstaff, AZ 86004 USA
Email: Carol.Thompson [at] nau.edu