AFRICAN Women's Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems highlights the importance of local, agroecological and equitable food systems and raises awareness of the invaluable contribution made by peasant and indigenous women to food sovereignty and food justice, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.
For decades, women have been credited as the custodians of local seeds necessary for sustainable agriculture in Zambia.
Rural women have been working on local seed production, multiplication, selection, preservation, saving, selling and exchange over the years, individually or under Smallholder Farmer Organisations (SFOs).
However, limited access to local seeds, poor preservation techniques due to unreliable storage facilities, and lack of standard seed banks threaten food security in the local communities.
Lufwanyama District in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia, home to many remote communities that completely depend on smallholder agriculture for food and income, is on a mission to collect native seeds to build a seed bank.
Peasant farmers in Chapula of Lufwanyama district believe that not only should they plant the seeds that are needed during the 2021/22 agriculture season, but the right seeds - the ones that thrive in the challenging agro-ecological conditions and meet desired preferences, for example, as ingredients in traditional meals.
But this is no simple task because the indigenous seeds are not easily accessible for many subsistence farmers. Hence the importance of the ongoing Women's Seeds Project by the African Women's Collaborative Healthy Food Systems, which aims to promote the use of local seeds and meet nutritional values among rural households.
The project supports the health and nutrition of rural and urban communities that face marginalisation and discrimination by using local seeds that are cultivated and conserved by peasant women.
Zambia Centre for Horticultural Training Principal Gloria Chitalu, shares the vision in safeguarding native seeds and rebuilding the local seed banks for the betterment of the agriculture sector.
Ms Chitalu says her institution will provide training to smallholder women farmers on Agroecological farming practices and most importantly on how to preserve local seeds for onward reproduction for the next season.
"We are establishing the demon plots. Once it is there, then we can organise training with the women and provide knowledge about the traditional crop varieties we grow and we can extend this programme to rural areas," she said.
Ms Chitalu explains that the centre specialises in horticulture production with emphasis on sustainable organic agriculture.
Agriculture experts believe that having a seed recovery, the programme will help address current needs, through empowering farmers in the area to rescue and safeguard rare native seeds, and efforts to rebuild local systems in the 10 provinces of Zambia.
For example, a farmer from the Luano area, Anne Mutale, aged 65, started farming 32 years ago in a village called Luwingu.
Ms Mutale grows a variety of both organic and hybrid crops such as maize, cowpeas, groundnuts, beans, sweet potatoes and cassava for food and income.
She choses to grow these crops because of their nutritional values and ingredients in traditional meals. She explained her efforts and contribution to safeguarding local seeds despite a lack of standard storage facilities.
"I have been preserving the local seeds for planting the next season because they are healthy, unlike these hybrid seeds. I normally use ash or lemons to preserve my maize, beans, groundnuts, cowpeas and pumpkin seeds for reuse the next season," Ms Mutale explains.
She says when crops are harvested; the maize is dried to make a mealie meal which is used for preparing 'Nshima', a local food.
"For other crops, I can use both fresh and dried beans but when we want to preserve it, we have to dry it, including its leaves. For the bean leaves, you boil them a bit and add some salt before drying them in the sun. The same process is applied to cowpeas leaves. Equally, the pumpkin seeds are dried in the sun to be used for the next season. We also use the leaves as vegetables, and we dry them so we don't run out of food in our home," Ms Mutale adds.
As a custodian of seed, Ms Mutale gained knowledge from her mother on how to preserve seeds and food, and now she wants to pass it on to her children and young girls in her community.
"Young girls need to be taught how to farm, how to prepare the land, what to grow and how to preserve the seeds and food in order to have food security... this is important... ," she says.
Another farmer, Dorothy Mugala of Luano village, grows maize, soya, beans and groundnuts, and keeps livestock animals.
Farming on three hectares of land, Ms Mugala narrated how she uses her farmland to grow organic crops and preserve them. For example, pumpkin seeds are full of valuable nutrients, high in antioxidants, very high in magnesium.
In addition, pumpkin seeds help to improve prostate and bladder health, may improve heart health and are linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers.
Cowpeas are excellent sources of dietary fiber, protein, B vitamins, and many other important vitamins and minerals. According to researchers, there is good evidence that they can help reduce blood sugar, improve cholesterol levels and help maintain a healthy gut.
Ms Mutale observes that when farmers save the best seeds from their crops year after year, they adapt the crops to the region they are growing in.
The better adapted crops are to the climate and growing conditions, the more likely farmers would be to reap healthy food.
It is more common for indigenous and rural communities to rely on their own sources of seeds year after year, but varieties have become increasingly vulnerable due to climate change, loss of small farms, market pressure, and seed privatisation.
Local and locally adapted seeds are an essential part of agricultural systems. Farming communities have seen their local seed systems eroded, with a grave impact on food production.
Much needs to be done to ensure that seed banks are established in rural areas for sustainable food security.
The African Women's Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems calls upon local and national government authorities and stakeholders to help in the establishment of seed banks, both at the communal and national levels.
This will aid in the preservation of local seeds and increased access of peasant women to these local seeds, rebuilding local seed systems and ensuring sustainable food security.