Endogenous Seeds Help Indigenous Communities in Benin Sow Change During COVID-19

The impacts of COVID-19 have reverberated throughout communities and the grassroots organizations they run. According to the World Food Programme, more than 70% of Benin’s population works in the agricultural sector. Yet, the country has been facing a lack of farmland, low agricultural productivity and continuously increasing food prices ever since the food crisis of 2008.

When coupled with the impacts of climate change and now the COVID-19 pandemic, food security has become a pressing issue for Benin. Beninese community participants of BES-Net’s virtual Trialogue for Francophone Africa in 2020 reported that many agroforestry activities have slowed down due to the need to follow the Government’s strict public health mandates in light of the pandemic. In some cases, this has even led to halted funding. However, the virtual Trialogue participants’ examples of creative community COVID-19 response, which have increased food security while preserving and promoting local and Indigenous Knowledge, have served to inspire others across the region.

The Research and Action Group for the Well-Being of Benin (GRABE-Benin - Groupe de Recherche et d'Action pour le Bien-Etre au Bénin) is one of those grassroots organizations that see the value in setting up a local seed bank to preserve local and Indigenous Knowledge surrounding native seeds and bring together policymakers, scientists and NGOs to tackle rising food insecurity. Mr. Mathieu SAR Toviehou, a representative from GRABE-Benin, notes that setting up an indigenous seed bank ultimately prepared them for the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had a long tradition of working with grassroots communities, especially farmers, conservationists and sellers of traditional seeds”.

In 2014, GRABE-Benin began facilitating community dialogues and making an inventory of endangered seeds.

Image courtesy of GRABE-Benin

Mr. Toviehou continues, “The first thing we did was to create a traditional seed bank by collecting endogenous seeds from each community."

Image courtesy of GRABE-Benin

"Red bean, peanut, corn, palm nut, pigeon pea, millet, soybean, sorghum, woandzou, ginger, onion, yam, sweet potato, cassava and ayokpè were among the seeds collected.”

Image courtesy of GRABE-Benin

According to Mr. Toviehou, these seeds are “endogenous”, meaning that they have not undergone any genetic modification and are suitable for almost all soils. They are also easy for farmers to produce. “Their production and conservation is passed on from parents to children, generation to generation”, he explains. The organization has simultaneously launched a grassroots study of local seed production to highlight the importance of seeds in terms of culture, spirituality, nutrition and medicine.

Mr. Toviehou shares, “When COVID-19 emerged, our interventions in these communities were limited. The Government established barriers so people could not visit one another among the communities. Even going to the market was difficult, many were closed off and, meanwhile, farmers’ yields were spoiled in the fields. Families were forced to start consuming their reserves but, thankfully, we intervened very early on. We provided them with seeds from the seed bank for production. For women's groups, we also provided seeds and compost. Their field of work has been increased, and we have provided them with manpower as well. We are helping these communities restart farming practices and increase morale. We cannot create more hunger for future generations.”

The disappearance of our local seeds quite simply means the loss of our identities and therefore of our cultures.

Appolinaire Oussou Lio is the President of GRABE-Benin and an environmentalist. He shares, “The disappearance of our local seeds quite simply means the loss of our identities and therefore of our cultures. Without those banks of traditional seeds, this would not have been able to happen. We owe it to ourselves to find traces of these seeds and to act for their conservation.”

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Photo credits (top to bottom): (1) Abby Wendle - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64462262, (2) Kulttuurinavigaattori - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75743339, (3) Abby Wendle - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64462262, (4) sjhanjeju on Pixabay, (5) PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay, (6) outsideclick on Pixabay, (7) Annie Spratt on UnSplash, (8) By Abby Wendle - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64462270