Bringing informal seed systems into focus

With the majority of farmers sourcing seed from informal systems, ISSD has in 2017 launched a new and wide-ranging package of activities to reach and support farmers and processes which have until now been out of focus.

Despite the relatively little focus on informal seed sources awarded by government and its developmental partners, roughly 80% of farmers in Ethiopia continue to source their seeds through informal channels.

The lack of formal and commercial attention to informal systems has resulted in a low uptake and dispersal of quality farmer preferred crop varieties, contributing to household-level food insecurity and fragile farm income.

Strengthening capacity and facilitating linkages between actors in informal systems, as well as stimulating integration with  formal systems, ISSD activities across 2017 seek to address these shortcomings and increase reliable and efficient access to farmer preferred varieties, improving livelihoods for some of the most vulnerable farming communities in Ethiopia.

Building the evidence base for informal seed system interventions
Together with partners, ISSD has completed various participatory studies, focusing on key crops for food security, to better understand the prevailing situation in  informal systems.

The studies included seed system security assessments (SSSA) with CRS to understand how seed is accessed in emergency areas; woreda analyses to understand preferred varieties and traits, constraints in accessing seed and what farmers and producers see as necessary interventions; local grain/seed market analyses to assess the role and centrality of the market in informal systems and traders roles in that market; and social seed network analyses to identify nodal farmers and their roles, as well as tracking and visualizing the movement of seed in and among villages.

The studies fed the design of ISSD’s new component and interventions on informal seed systems. A total of 30 woredas are selected for intervention, across 22 zones and four regions. 21 of the woredas are PSNP woredas, while four are AGP woredas. In total, 96 kebelles are targeted, with 50% of direct beneficiaries being women farmers.


Differing roles and priorities among women and men farmers

With such a focus on gender sensitive interventions, understanding the different roles and preferences of women and men farmers is essential. The studies show that in general, men farmers focus on yield and disease/pest tolerance as desirable traits, while women farmers prioritise marketability, storability, colour, taste and ease of cooking as important traits to consider.

Further, depending on the region and sometimes woreda, differences in the activities of women and men farmers have also been identified. In eastern Oromia, for example, while there is equal contribution to many tasks such as weeding and crop, variety and seed selection, other tasks such as land selection and preparation, harvesting and threshing are mainly completed by men. Women however, are found to be more active in transportation and storage processes.

These results call for gender-based interventions in order to strengthen informal seed systems, and to this end Gender & Rural Development (GRD) Experts have been recruited to each of the five ISSD regional teams. These GRD experts are already engaged in key activities, an example of which is training in Oromia, in which 30 partners learned about gender sensitivity in crowdsourcing and participatory variety selection (PVS) and crowdsourcing. Together with ISSD Seed Experts and Farmer Organisation Experts, the GRD Experts will capitalise on the unique perspectives, needs and strengths of women farmers.


The importance of nodal farmers in the social seed network
The social seed network analyses highlighted the key role of nodal and connector farmers in establishing a sustainable informal seed network, and the opportunity such farmers give for reaching large numbers of farmers with our activities. Nodal farmers search for and maintain higher diversity, as well as having many more active connections to other farmers in the community. Further, these farmers are far more active in sharing seeds within and outside of the community.

Nodal farmers are seen as being more knowledgeable by their peers in relation to seed production and are accepted as playing a key role in maintaining the network dynamics and contributing to resilience in times of difficulty. Connector, or bridging farmers, also serve this function, accessing sub-networks within communities.

The position of these farmers in the social seed network offers promising intervention points, and across 2017, nodal farmers have engaged in training organised by ISSD. Training focuses on pre- and post-harvest quality seed management and basic financial literacy, while separate workshops seek to strengthen linkages between nodal farmers, cooperatives and seed vendors.

Reaching scale through PVS and crowdsourcing

Both PVS and crowdsourcing are key activities within ISSD’s informal seed systems component. To support this work, training of trainers (ToTs) was organized for more than 125 experts of partner organizations and development agents, as well as enumerators hired to collect data on farmers’ varietal preferences. In turn, these partners are training many more local farmers.

This approach offers opportunities to reach a large scale. Early generation seed (EGS) of over 140 different varieties of barley; finger millet; sorghum; teff; wheat; chick-pea; common bean; faba bean and field pea, was distributed to 6,000 farmers for on-farm PVS trials.

These 6,000 farmers will submit data on their evaluation of and preferences for varieties and specific traits to a
database managed in collaboration with Bioversity International through a process called crowdsourcing. This data will become freely available to farmers, seed producers, and all other engaged actors active in efforts to improve men and women farmers’ access to varieties of their preference.

Continuing wide-ranging interventions in informal seed systems

Just a snapshot of ISSD’s activities on informal seed systems has been presented here. From 2017 onwards, ISSD and partners will continue to learn about the challenges and opportunities within informal systems and complete collaborative activities to strengthen the livelihoods of farming communities.