Social capital and community welfare motivates nodal farmers’ informal seed exchange

Nodal farmers’ role and motivations to exchange seed in their locality formed the topic of recent research. ISSD Tigray Unit facilitated a Wageningen University (Netherlands) researcher to conduct a seed social network analysis, concluding that while nodal farmer self-interest plays a role, community and neighbourly well-being remain important factors in engaging in seed exchange.

The informal sorghum seed system in the Asgede Tsimbla Woreda of the Tigray region is active and dynamic. Seed is produced and dispersed through a number of nodal farmers; farmers with a high degree of connectedness with other farmers.

Teaming up with ISSD’s Tigray team, the Local Bureau of Agriculture and Bioversity International, researcher Christophe Rodier explored the characteristics of these nodal farmers; what made them so central in local seed exchange and what drove them to fill this role.

Importance of nodal farmers
Given that informal seed systems account for 80-90% of the total national seed requirement, understanding the position and potential role of nodal farmers is essential to consider in sector transformation planning.

With that in mind, a key focus of the research was to examine the challenges nodal farmers experience and the resulting decisions which impact the adoption of newly released improved sorghum varieties.

To uncover these traits and strategies, researchers engaged in a spread of surveys, a series of in-depth interviews and a wide and diverse range of focus group discussions. 159 household interviews enabled the analysis of 285 nodes and 421 exchanges.

Motivations of nodal farmers
All farmers, nodal or not, recognised the socio-cultural and risk-related importance of exchanging seeds, and all farmers endeavoured to give the highest-quality seeds they have available to them. But additional priorities for exchanging seed diverged.

For non-nodal farmers, a higher priority was to increase productivity, income and exposure to new practices. For nodal farmers, community well-being, matched with a wish to be respected or ‘famed’ and act as a role model for other farmers, were key drivers. The wish to access new practices and technology is also present, but to a lesser degree.

Ancestral tradition encourages the exchange of seed and the mantra that, “seed is of the Earth, not the farmer”, holds. But, the philanthropic motivations of nodal farmers are not without limits though. Chronically seed insecure farmers are not guaranteed to receive seed when they seek it.

Temporary nature of nodal farmers.
Non-nodal farmers, where possible, will not continue to request seed from the same nodal farmers continuously; such continued requests are denied. Farmers reported an understanding that a nodal farmers situation and priorities may change due to unforeseen circumstances.

Consequently the designation of ‘nodal farmer’ is temporary and transfers periodically across different farmers. And as such, the community awards no particular continuous higher status to nodal farmers. There is however an acceptance of additional social capital when a farmer is considered ‘nodal’, and that during that time, nodal farmers have a clearer path to a community leadership position if one is sought.

Seed social network
The research highlighted the important position that social networks play in seed exchange as well as supporting and hampering the supply and adoption of new improved varieties. These learnings have been taken into account in ISSD Ethiopia’s ongoing activities on informal seed systems.