Celebrating African Rural Women: Custodians of Seed, Food & Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Resilience is a report from The Gaia Foundation in collaboration with the African Biodiversity Network and with the support of the African Women’s Development Fund. Over 4 chapters this in-depth report, released in November 2015, shows that a vast wealth of knowledge about crops, wild foods, nutrition, medicinal plants and biodiversity is on the verge of being lost in Africa, just when it is most needed for climate change resilience. Crop and plant diversity is critical in the face of climate change and yet rural women – those who are most knowledgeable about cultivating this diversity – are being actively undermined. This report shows how the agri-business industry is promoting seed monopoly laws which would criminalise the farmers who save, exchange and sell their seeds – a practice which has been at the heart of agriculture and enhancing seed diversity for millennia.
Revalorising the role of African Rural Women
The report celebrates the vital role that African rural women play in selecting, breeding and enhancing the diversity of their seeds and protecting wild biodiversity. It sets out how the complexity of this knowledge has evolved through women’s intimate relationship with land and seed, and their understanding of the nutritional and cultural needs of the family and community- all of which lie at the heart of food sovereignty and ensuring climate change resilience.
Liz Hosken, Founding Director of The Gaia Foundation and lead author on the report says “Today in Africa, it is small farmers – who are mainly women – who still produce 80% of the food on just 14.7% of the agricultural land, despite growing pressures. Since colonisation women in Africa have been disproportionately undermined by the successive waves of colonial and globalisation policies and practices. In July this year, many African governments signed onto the Agri-business-led ARIPO Protocol introducing seed laws that would criminalize farmers for saving, exchanging and selling the seeds they cultivate. Through legal avenues such as this a handful of corporations threaten to control the continent’s entire seed and food system, and in doing so, directly usurp and undermine small farmer’s capacity to deal with climate change. This goes to the core of woman’s role as custodians of seed diversity, further pushing women to the edge and directly violating their rights.”
Theo Sowa, Chief Executive of the African Women’s Development Fund, who have supported the development and production of the report, added “Agri-culture is a way of life for Africa’s majority rural population. It has evolved over millennia, establishing the diverse cultural food systems of the continent and is central to all facets of people’s lives – and women have been at the heart of this. However because these livelihood systems have often not been central to modern market economies, they have been marginalised and sometimes denigrated. Many decades of targeting men for commercial interests promoting cash crops for foreign markets has further side-lined women, who have become increasingly invisible despite their critical role in meeting the diverse nutritional, medicinal and cultural needs of the family and the community. As a result women’s knowledge, status and leadership has been undermined at all levels.”
Professor Patricia Howard, Ethnobotanist with the University of Kent and author of Women and Plants: Gender Relations (2003) said “Women are traditionally custodians of the whole seed cycle from selection, cleaning, storage to identifying which seeds to plant each season. They use a wide range of criteria such as drought resistance, nutrition, taste, cooking time and storability when they select their seed. Through continuous use and seed exchange they maintain the best genetic potential in their crops for dealing with environmental stresses, pests and diseases, as well as qualities such as quick growing and climate resilience. As the arrival and volume of rains in Africa becomes increasingly unpredictable, it is these locally adapted seeds that have the resilience to ensure families can eat and make a living in times of climate change.”
The report shares stories of the resistance that is building through the African women’s movement for food sovereignty and initiatives to restore and scale-up agro-ecological practices and the leadership role of women. It states that the revival of these diversity based, resilient food systems serves to cool the planet by absorbing carbon into the living soils, and to regenerate local economies.
Liz Hosken says that “We need to develop initiatives, programmes and policies to re-dignify the traditional knowledge held by African rural women and their leadership role in the family and the community. Reclaiming and enhancing seed diversity and women’s traditional knowledge and role underpins the regeneration of community cohesion and ecologically viable food systems which is the basis of climate change resilience, feeding the world and cooling the planet.”
What people are saying about the report…
In the last few decades, Africa has been under tremendous pressure to open up its economies to foreign corporations, to industrialise its agriculture and to privatise its precious seed diversity. In the process, the contribution and profound knowledge of its rural women have been increasingly sidelined, marginalised and violated. Read this report to understand how this happened and why it is high time to support Africa’s women to take centre stage again in farming systems, revive their knowledge and lead Africa towards food sovereignty.
Henk Hobbelink, Coordinator of GRAIN
Few publications address the crucial role of African women as curators of some of the richest agrobiodiversity on the planet, much less map out not only the driving forces that cause these women to lose their heritage, status, and security, but that also discuss what can be done about this from the perspective of the women themselves, as well as their allies in the scientific and development community. Three cheers for this vital contribution!!
Professor Patricia Howard, Ethnobotanist Kent University
We welcome this timely report that celebrates rural African women, their relationship with seed, and their role in building a strong movement for food sovereignty. Right now, Africa is facing a huge threat to its rich and diverse seed, food and farming systems, as multinational seed companies lay claim to seed varieties as their private possessions, and our governments move blindly towards a regionally seamless and expedited trade in commercially bred seed varieties for the benefit, mainly, of the foreign seed industry. We cannot let this happen. This report shows us why and how it will impact on women especially.
Million Belay, Coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA)
Behind the report
The African Biodiversity Network (ABN), founded in 2002, has a vision for vibrant and resilient African communities rooted in their own biological, cultural and spiritual diversity, governing their own lives and livelihoods, in harmony with healthy ecosystems. Through its Secretariat in Kenya, the network of ABN members are working to strengthen the revival of indigenous seed and associated knowledge, contributing to food sovereignty across Africa.
The Gaia Foundation (Gaia) is committed to regenerating cultural and biological diversity, and restoring a respectful relationship with the Earth. Together with long-term partners in Africa, South America, Asia and Europe, Gaia work with indigenous and local communities to secure land, seed, food and water sovereignty, revive indigenous knowledge, protect sacred natural sites, and strengthen community ecological governance. Gaia’s work supports small farmers to revive and exchange locally adapted, indigenous seed varieties, free from corporate control and debt into the future and to protect ecosystems and local communities from the impact of mining and extractivism.
The African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) is a grant-making foundation that supports local, national and regional women’s organisations working towards the empowerment of African women and the promotion and realisation of their rights. The vision of the AWDF is for women to live in a world where there is social justice, equality and respect for women’s human rights. The organisation believes that if women and women’s organisations are empowered with skills, information, sustainable livelihoods, opportunities to fulfill their potential, plus the capacity and space to make transformatory choices, then we will have vibrant, healthy and inclusive communities. AWDF amplifies and celebrates African women’s voices and achievements, supports efforts that combat harmful stereotypes, and promotes African women as active agents of change.