Empowering Farmers Through Seed Fairs

Is there anything more basic to a farmer than seed?

Seed sown and nurtured provides food for farmers and their families. It holds the promise of marketable crops that could increase their incomes and improve their lives.

But when a farmer has no seed to sow, people's livelihoods and lives are jeopardized. Farmers are unable to grow their own food and must look for other sources of income, sometimes migrating far away from their ancestral lands.

For years, humanitarian organizations like Catholic Relief Services procured, transported and distributed seeds and tools following a disaster or a drought to help farmers get back on their feet. But over time, we and others in the field began questioning the effectiveness of this approach. There are debates swirling among people who work in the development field about issues like the appropriateness of using hybrids or genetically modified seed in disaster response — seed that farmers either cannot save or are prohibited from doing so by seed companies. At a basic level, the problem is that farmers sometimes have no access to seed of local crop varieties they need for planting.

Farmers generally prefer trusted, locally available varieties. They have expertise and experience in selecting seed that is of good quality and is most appropriate for their needs. Normally, they can access this seed from their own crops, their families and neighbors. But in times of crisis, this system is stretched. Some communities may have a surplus, while others face a deficit.

So, the thinking went, instead of giving commercially produced seed to people, why not help them buy local seed from local sellers? That idea led to the seed voucher and fair approach. First used in 2000 by CRS in Uganda, the idea quickly spread across Africa.

Seed vouchers and fairs put the farmer in the center of the process of recovery from a disaster, drought or some other shock. The community determines who among them are most vulnerable, and these families are chosen to participate in the seed fair. The families receive vouchers to use at a one-day fair where they can buy seeds from a select group of local producers and seed sellers who, in turn, redeem the vouchers for cash at the end of the day.

In addition to helping families rebound from the cycle of poverty, the voucher system – which is used by CRS in over 25 countries around the world – gives farmers the freedom to select the variety and quantity of seeds they want. Supporting local seed growers is also a means of stimulating the local economy. It helps to rebuild social relationships within a community that may have been frayed by conflict or a natural disaster. Local seed vendors in many cases are women who have families of their own to support, so the benefit reaches beyond the farmers to the entire community through a multiplier effect.

Seed vouchers and fairs have been used to good effect as a part of CRS' emergency response. CRS recently worked with the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization to implement seed fairs in Lesotho, which was suffering from a drought so severe that the government declared a state of emergency in July. Seed fairs were also used in Niger in 2005, when a severe drought and locust infestation sparked a food crisis. Before the crisis began receiving media attention, CRS had already reached tens of thousands of people with assistance that included seed fairs. Farmers who planted stock obtained from the CRS seed fairs were less affected by the food crisis than many others.

CRS recently completed an evaluation of our efforts in Burundi to help families impacted by the civil war recover and resume productive lives. Since switching from direct seed distribution to seed vouchers and fairs six years ago, CRS and our diocesan partners have assisted more than half a million farm families obtain over 17 million pounds of seed, mostly beans. More than 20 percent of the families served were headed by widows, a result of the long and brutal civil war that killed more than 200,000 people. These farm families overwhelmingly agreed that the use of vouchers was better than the direct distribution of seed, citing the advantages of choice and ability to procure good-quality seed. In contrast, most of the farmers criticized the poor quality of seed they had received via direct distribution. And sellers said that the opportunity to sell at the fairs dramatically increased their business.

The seed voucher and fair approach is one case in which a simple idea led to reconsideration of how we operate. But the result will continue to benefit the poorest and most vulnerable people we serve for years to come.

Thank you for your continued support and your prayers,

Ken Hackett

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