Ethiopia is an enormously diverse country of arid lands, temperate highlands and tropical rainforests. Home to the Great Rift Valley – from whence the human race is believed to have emerged – Ethiopia is also a world centre of origin and diversity for many of our food crops, including coffee, teff and barley.
Tragic famines and wars have haunted Ethiopia’s past but today Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Agriculture is the backbone of the country’s economy – especially small-scale farming, which accounts for 95 per cent of the total farm area.
Our work focuses on farmers’ access to a diversity of locally adapted seeds – from a wide range of crops – for food security. Building on their existing knowledge, farmers can fine tune these crop varieties, adapting them to changing local conditions.
Birthplace: Seeds of Survival
In the mid 1980s, back-to-back civil wars and record low rainfalls triggered one of the world’s most haunting famines. Many farming families lost the last of their seed stores, threatening northern Ethiopia’s long-term food security and the genetic resources of thousands of seed varieties.
Dr. Melaku Worede (Director of Ethiopia’s National Gene Bank) and Pat Mooney (Canadian researcher and activist) approached USC Canada with a plan to rescue precious and diverse farmer seed, multiply it and give it back to farmers. This was the birth of USC Canada’s Seeds of Survival (SoS) program and, over the next decade, this idea spread. USC Canada organized training workshops in Ethiopia, Thailand, the Philippines, Mali, Lesotho, Malawi, Timor Leste and Zambia. Today USC Canada continues to support the conservation, exchange and use of seeds, knowledge and practices among farmers and with scientists around the globe with our SoS program.
Ethiopia faces population pressures and climate change challenges that contribute to land fragmentation, declining soil fertility, and soil erosion. Farmers regularly face dry spells, droughts, and late frosts at higher altitudes. Until very recently, there has been little support for strengthening local seed systems.
USC Canada in Ethiopia
Our program operates in southern Wollo, in the country’s north, adjacent to the area most heavily affected by the drought and famine of the ‘80s. Today, these highland communities are farming fragile lands that are particularly prone to population pressure, drought, soil degradation and erosion.
Our Local Partner: EOSA
USC Canada is working with Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA), an organization founded in 2002 to continue the SoS work begun at the Ethiopia National Gene Bank.
EOSA and USC Canada are supporting the creation of local seed exchange networks by establishing community seed banks (CSBs), promoting participatory varietal selection and farmer-scientist collaboration. The program also focuses on increasing the participation of women and young people.
The work in southern Wollo has been replicated by EOSA in several parts of both central and southern Ethiopia. Most recently, Ethiopia’s Southern Regional Government is building publicly funded community seed banks with technical advice and training from EOSA. EOSA has also provided input to Ethiopia’s National Seed policy, encouraging recognition of the value of local seed systems.
Core Work: Community Seed Banks
- The foundation of the SoS program, CSBs are places where men and women farmers conserve crucial genetic resources adapted to their locality and develop back-up stores of local seed supplies – strategies that are essential for climate change adaptation.
- CSBs are centres of innovation, training and knowledge-sharing. Participatory varietal selection is integrated into the CSB work, and is a powerful way for farmers to be actively involved in the process of selecting and testing new crop varieties that are adapted to their own needs and environments. It’s a space where farmers can share information about watershed management and soil and water conservation.
- CSBs also offer the chance to learn, through farmer field schools and training for women and youth in crop productivity and income generating activities.