Fellow Since 2009
Seeding Food Security, Sovereignty and Culture
This description of Munyaradzi Saruchera's work was prepared when Munyaradzi Saruchera was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
Approximately sixty percent of South Africa’s seed patrimonies of local or traditional varieties of food crops have been lost as people have migrated from rural areas to the urban areas over the last several generations. Munya is building a network of integrated home seed banks that not only preserves vital crop varieties in South Africa, but also revitalizes food sources and culture. His approach allows households in urban areas to self identify and conserve heirloom and noncommercial white maize, watermelon, peanut, Jugo beans, and sorghum seeds. He teaches would-be gardeners and provides seeds to urban farmers interested in planting these traditional crops and has effectively created a ‘green source’ for poor farmers: a complete system of household seed exchange.
The New Idea
When Munyaradzi was working with community seed banks in rural South Africa in 2005, he discovered that communities kept significant quantities of seed in their homes, including 100 percent of the varieties that were no longer being planted for commercial purposes. Despite the fact that families held onto these seeds, Munyaradzi came to realize that knowledge of certain seed varieties existence was no longer shared. The so-called “heirloom seeds” were viewed as irrelevant to current farming and belonging to an old and rural generation. Munyaradzi believes that not only is valuable traditional knowledge embedded and embodied in these seeds, but great economic potential as well. He is, therefore, reintroducing the cultural practice of seed saving and knowledge, and using the network he has built to address issues of food security and education in South Africa’s urban and peri-urban areas.Since, in many cases, seeds were being stored and the only thing missing was a record of their existence, the first step in the development of his idea was to create a database of the number and variety of seeds in various townships in the area. He made this information available to urban farmers in the Cape Town area and received an overwhelming number of inquiries about where to procure these seeds and how to cultivate them. Demand outpaced availability and availability was limited because of the very premature state of saving heirloom seeds. Munyaradzi went to India to research household seed saving and storage.Munyaradzi’s rule of thumb for sharing is based on replacing the seed borrowed by one and a half times more seed at their next harvest. This ensures that the seed bank continues to grow and is a reoccurring sign of the commitment of the seed banks contributors and users. Munyaradzi’s approach has interested Ikamva Labantu, TCOE, the City of Cape Town, the Provincial Department of Agriculture and Abalimi. He explains the idea at seed security awareness workshops where he is a regular speaker. His work in teaching heirloom seed storage and planting has caught the attention of early childhood development centers across the Western Cape which are observing the importance of integrating food culture education and social identity in children. It is important for children and youth to grow an awareness and knowledge of food systems, right from the seed, crops, dishes, and various food products.
South Africa has recently reached an important demographic threshold: More people now live in cities than in rural areas. In South Africa this process was accelerated by apartheid, which dismantled small-scale farming in rural areas and forced farmers to relocate into homelands known as Bantustans (i.e. where they were forced to live in concentrated communities and not allowed to farm except on tiny plots) or to physically relocate to urban or peri-urban labor pool areas to earn a living, with no possibility of returning to their original farms.To feed these populations, South Africa created a welfare state that accelerated the concentration of food on a limited number of agricultural commodities. Small-scale farmers who turned to farming these few crops on very compressed farms on tiny plots in the Bantustans and in urban areas abandoned the seed varieties they had previously planted. Many of these seeds were simply rolled into newspaper and put away to be passed down as heirlooms, keepsakes of a different era of agriculture. After 1994, government policies to redistribute land posed a great challenge for the post-apartheid government. The result of all this is that knowledge of the seed patrimony of South Africa was hidden away in rolled up newspaper, being withheld and forgotten.Adults, youths, and children are also losing important local knowledge of their food culture, traditional dishes and appreciation of the linkages between seeds, crops, and food. A people without a culture (including food) are lost. Today’s children and some adults cannot identify the crops and seeds from which the foods they eat originate. For them, food is limited to what can only be sourced from supermarkets. The rich diversity of African dishes and crops is being lost, resulting in a mono food culture. Members of the older generations, perplexed, find themselves asking, “How could someone claim to be Xhosa or Zulu when all they eat and survive on is pasta and rice?”A more pressing question, in the wake of the global food crisis that started in 2008, is how will they survive at all when the price of pasta and rice double? Along with growing unemployment and chronic poverty across the townships of Cape Town, Munyaradzi realized that low-income urban communities are struggling as food prices have increased remarkably, with the price of maize meal up by more than 22 percent, rice 24 percent, samp 23 percent, brown bread 19 percent, breakfast oats 27 percent, and milk 32 percent. The poorest 60 percent of the population are now using about 25 percent of their income on food.One perhaps surprising response has been the increased trend of urban spaces being used to provide food, where livestock is being kept for milk, meat and manure, and crops and vegetables are being grown. In all, there are about 1 million people across the townships of Cape Town, most of whom are not employed and adapting multiple livelihood strategies that include growing their own food to supplement whatever is available. But without cash, many of the home gardeners are struggling to access seeds for the most common crops and grow their own food. Farm inputs have risen sharply over the years and seeds alone account for about 10 percent of input costs. One reason prices are increasing, Munyaradzi realized, is that stringent seed laws and regulations do not allow multiplication and trading of hybrid seeds due to the plant breeders’ intellectual property rights. This legal regime meant that the farmers who need seeds cannot freely trade, save, or exchange them despite being dependant on them. Munyaradzi saw that these farmers, drawn to the designer seeds of the day, were overlooking the potential of using traditional and open-pollinated seeds that often fall outside the legal seed regimes and the control of plant breeders as they are considered to be less profitable.Because so little attention was paid to traditional plant varieties and seeds, despite the growing number for urban farmers, the diversity of crops available overall was diminishing. Munyaradzi saw that the pool from which the country could draw seed varieties was decreasing. The resultant social and cultural impact on diverse ethnic groups would be irreversible. In fact, some types of traditional foods and dishes have already been lost due to non-availability of the relevant crops and seeds as well as changing lifestyles and changing food preferences. And the replacement foods that are common in urban areas are not nutritionally or culturally appropriate. The non-availability or huge cost and distance required to acquire specific foods called for in rites of passage rituals and ceremonies among certain ethnic groups is already adversely affecting the ability of people to hold traditional events or perform their rites. In the past, communities maintained strong ties with their rural origins, but growing urbanization and loss of family ties and traditions has come with the loss of certain kinds of knowledge, lack of interest in traditions due to the emergence of urban subcultures, and different forms of socialization.Development citizen organizations (COs) and funders that facilitate the establishment of seed banks for smallholder farmers are unable to sustain these seed banks, and communities do not have or take ownership of CO run seed banks. Invariably, the seed banks that help these communities reach a stage where they collapsed or became unsustainable. At the same time, the external agencies working with the farmers are promoting market dependency for poor people who neither have the cash nor control of the markets and big business.
Munyaradzi believes he must build his seed bank while also growing a community base of support for the project and a general interest in farming. If he can kindle in farmers and young students an interest in learning about their heritage along with the interest he has seen in growing food in urban areas, Munya believes he can revive traditional knowledge as well as help sustain urban communities. Additionally, the perceptions of markets and the assumption and belief that food security is the business of the corporate world are debunked when farmers erase the corporate footprint on the food chain. In saving and exchanging seeds, farmers’ learn a lot about themselves and their culture. They also become aware of the abundant social capital (i.e. trust, reciprocity and so on) that is embedded in lost traditions and practices of seed saving and sharing. Food systems and cultures that were lost will now be revitalized and shared across farming networks and contribute to community building and diversity. As more and more households are forced to produce their own food, Munyaradzi is seizing the opportunity to reconnect urban dwellers with the soil and the traditional crops and customs rooted in rural South Africa.In seeing the growing number of urban farmers and the challenges they face in accessing more expensive hybrid and designer seeds, Munya is harnessing the interest in urban agriculture to revitalize and restock South Africa’s household banks of traditional seeds. Given that only 150 crop species are grown commercially on a global scale while 7,000 species play crucial roles in poor people’s lives but are underutilized, seed saving engenders agricultural biodiversity. By promoting this practice and coordinating the seed savers, Munyaradzi guards against further loss of varietal and crop diversity, promotes indigenous knowledge, and breaks dependence on a few global food crops such as wheat, rice, and maize.Seed saving is easy and was once widely practiced throughout South Africa. One of the most popular methods of seed storage included suspending seeds from the roof in small containers which were sealed using cow dung. Munyaradzi has revived this practice and also introduced other seed saving and storage methods from India and taught them to the farmers in Lynedoch, Nyanga, Phillipi, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, and Worcester and has begun to broaden his research on hidden and heirloom seeds; quickly gaining popularity as they are shared with local urban farmers.One of the most important outcomes of seed saving is building community, which is why Munyaradzi is not following the same route of COs to set up seed bank structures or any attempt to commercialize the value of the work, as opposed to individuals reclaiming their cultural identity. His plan is to encourage this movement to grow organically. Munya sees his role as part of a community approach encouraging farmers to take up the project.Another principle in Muyaradzi’s idea lies in embedding the project in the livelihoods, social and cultural aspects of households, as well as community learning systems. Through the revival and development of seed systems for food security and sovereignty, Munyaradzi tells the story of urban links to rural areas and South Africa’s link to its agricultural past. It is important for today’s young generation to understand and appreciate food diversity and realize the centrality of the social and cultural issues underpinning food culture and their identity.The involvement of children and youth in the project could mean long-lasting impact and sustainability of the project because future generations and leaders of tomorrow will be made aware of their food rights. They will be proud and knowledgeable of the causal and intricate linkages between social and cultural issues and identities with food, and more importantly, they can produce their own food at household level if they choose to. To date, there is no systematic early childhood development (ECD) program that has formally integrated seed education and awareness except for a few isolated cases of crèche teachers and trainers. Munyaradzi is working with some ECD centers by encouraging children and teachers to become familiar with the actual growing and nurturing of indigenous vegetables as well as consuming traditional dishes made with these vegetables. There has been expressed interest from ECD centers to integrate the importance of seeds into children’s learning and education. Since many children today cannot link or relate to, let alone identify, seeds with certain crops and the foods that are made from them.
From an early age, Munyaradzi has been challenged by a desire to make a difference in his immediate community; by mobilizing for action, a curious mind that sought to ask deep-seated questions, or questioned livelihood conditions of people affected by poverty, especially food poverty. For example, at eight, Munyaradzi challenged his headmaster about why the children who could not afford school uniforms were sent home and as a result, missed school. He also questioned why poor children whose parents could not afford to pay for a nutritious drink and meal that was served at school were excluded. Munyaradzi’s personal history has been influenced by a deep desire to serve and driven by his passion for community development work.By the time he went through secondary school and college, Munyaradzi wanted to study political science, despite his father’s disapproval, and lack of financial commitment toward Munyaradzi’s career. Regardless, Munyaradzi was committed to pursuing this course of study and found alternative means to fund his chosen path. After qualifying with a degree in political science, he taught at a local school in Zimbabwe and discovered an interest in environmental issues. In order to learn more he interned at a leading environmental organization, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). After taking time out to complete his master’s degree, IUCN offered him a position on the ecosystems commission which had to be resuscitated in Botswana. It involved identifying ecosystems around the world with experience in river, grassland, fisheries, and so fourth. If people identified problems within a particular IUCN members ecosystem, the commission would identify an expert in that ecosystem to go and assist the IUCN members.When Munyaradzi moved on from the IUCN, he came to South Africa (2001) and accepted a position with the Ford Foundation and the University of the Western Cape with the association of Land and Agrarian Studies. In 2005, he joined Biowatch, which worked on the ground around sustainable agriculture; his work involved training smallholder farmers on the ground, as well as understanding South Africa from a different environmental context on the ground.When Munyaradzi left Biowatch, he took time out from July to November 2007 to reconnect with himself. After traveling, Munyaradzi realized that much of community development and social change work was complex and development actors needed to change the way they bring about social change. With enhanced insights of how complex social change processes happen and some initial support from the Sustainability Institute, between March and July 2008 Munyaradzi travelled to Limpopo, KwaZulu Natal, and the Eastern Cape to better understand the seed systems of the rural farmers he had met during his time with Biowatch. He learned about the role of trust and reciprocity in the social systems that hold the tradition and practice of seed saving, and exchange systems that exist outside relationships that are mediated by development COs/actors. Munyaradzi also learned the importance of food culture and its centrality to personal and sociocultural identities among African people.