Skip to content


Connecting for Better Outcomes for Farmers

Connecting for Better Outcomes for Farmers

Joy Mugisha (Photo: The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT)

1 August 2023

Joy Mugisha helped establish a seedbank in her village over a decade ago. One of more than twenty in Uganda, the Kiziba community seedbank serves as a model for conserving crop diversity at the community level, enhancing the quality and accessibility of the seeds that local farmers prefer.

So to say that Joy knows a lot about seeds, particularly which varieties can flourish on and around her farm in southwestern Uganda, would be an understatement. And she wants to take her knowledge to the next level and share it with as many other farmers as possible. But she can’t do it alone. 

Actually, nobody can. Seed systems are too complex. They are made up of all the actors, activities, and institutions involved in providing, managing, replacing, and distributing the seed of a crop in a certain area. It’s as tricky as it sounds, and important, too: Seed systems are critical to making sure that the right crop diversity makes it to farmers’ fields, and stays there. 

“Farmers need varieties that will help them adapt to diseases, pests, heat, and drought,” says Mugisha. “They need information about what varieties are available from where, and training in how to use them, and how to tell good seeds from bad.” 

In short, they need well-functioning seed systems.

Want to Fix the Food System? Fix the Seed System first. 

National genebanks are important players in seed systems, though that is not always recognized. Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) works closely with farmers, sharing varieties for testing, involving them in participatory breeding programmes and helping them set up community seedbanks like the one in Kiziba. There are also extension agents, plant breeders, local markets, private seed companies: all have their roles. But how do they connect to each other? And how can they best work together?

To answer such questions, a holistic, bird’s eye approach is needed. This is where the Crop Trust’s Biodiversity for Opportunities, Livelihoods and Development (BOLD) Project comes in. 
Launched in 2021 to strengthen food and nutrition security around the world by supporting the conservation and use of crop diversity, BOLD is looking at seed systems in four very different countries to understand how crop diversity can better reach smallholder farmers. BOLD’s seed systems work is conducted by researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

Better Connections

“Better connections mean better seeds,” says Mugisha, whose own seedbank, the Joy and Family Demonstration Farm, holds crops such as beans, coffee, cassava, banana, and millet. Better connections provide more options for farmers who otherwise might use and reuse poor quality seeds, and poorly adapted varieties, resulting in low yields and the malnutrition and loss of income that go with smaller harvests.

The NMBU team is looking at how to strengthen links within seed systems to promote greater seed diversity, better yields for farmers, and improved nutrition and livelihoods for rural communities.

“This research is critical to identify the gaps in current seed-system actors’ linkages so that we can design interventions that really improve matters for farmers and ensure that the flow of diversity throughout the seed system is smooth,” says Gloria Otieno, a scientist with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, a BOLD partner in research in Uganda and Tanzania. Together with Ecuador and Bhutan, these are the four pilot countries. 

"Each seed system is unique, with particular socio-cultural and agroecological conditions and economic goals," says Teshome Hunduma, a postdoctoral research fellow at NMBU’s Department of International Environment and Development Studies. "Yet there are also similarities. For example, although Bhutan and Ecuador are continents apart, with very different crops and unique challenges, both are concerned with maintaining their gastronomic heritage." 

Policies in Tanzania tend towards promoting commercial seed-production and marketing, with stringent protection laws for new plant varieties. But opinions heard at the launch workshop of BOLD’s seed systems work suggested some policies may not have widespread popularity, and many participants called for a greater diversity of seeds and actors, says Hunduma.

Uganda has policies that aim to develop a diverse, pluralistic seed system involving farmers and community-based actors. But researchers heard of shortages of quality seed, and smallholder farmers have limited awareness of, and trust in, improved seed varieties.

Delivering Diversity, Building Resilience

Robust seed systems that deliver diversity are critical to building the resilience of smallholders in the face of the multiple shocks caused by conflicts, disasters, and climate change. Farmers need to know that if one variety of seed fails, they can shift to other varieties that better suit new conditions, says Otieno. Varieties that are drought tolerant, more resistant to the prevalent pests, or have a shorter growing season before harvest.

Farmers, farmer organizations, and breeders must have greater access to the wide diversity of genetic material that genebanks can offer, says Sarah Paule Dalle, a researcher with NMBU.

“Through BOLD, we’re asking: How can genebanks play a greater role in the seed system today?” she says. 

Mugisha emphasizes the importance of training farmers to learn how to identify, manage, and multiply good-quality seeds, including the landraces that community seedbanks can offer. Of her 70 bean varieties, five are improved varieties from NARO that she multiples and sells. Mugisha works with the breeding program to regularly acquire and test new varieties with farmers. Beans are an important food staple and a cash crop in Uganda.

Next steps

“Because needs differ from crop to crop, from farmer to farmer, and from place to place, a variety of pathways are needed to ensure farmers’ seed security,” says Ola Westengen, referring to a recent paper written with Hunduma and Dalle. Westengen leads the BOLD research on seed systems at NMBU. 

Ultimately, the wealth of information, experience and ideas gained from the BOLD pilot studies can be taken to the next level and scaled up by national genebanks around the world to make sure farmers get the crop diversity they need, when they need it.

Category: BOLD

About the BOLD Project

BOLD (Biodiversity for Opportunities, Livelihoods, and Development) is a major 10-year project to strengthen food and nutrition security worldwide by supporting the conservation and use of crop diversity. The project works with national genebanks, pre-breeding and seed system partners globally. Funded by the government of Norway, BOLD is led by the Crop Trust in partnership with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the International Plant Treaty.

Scroll to top