Local innovation challenges

So, is that it? Is it going to be forever difficult for small farmers to enter the market? Will they be prevented from using their own seeds to feed their families and produce local varieties that can be sold on the market?


Fortunately, the legislative process is still evolving. There are still chances to see amendments and opportunities to protect the small farmer seed system included in the new laws. The last decade has seen lots of constructive actions towards this aim, like the development of local systems of education and training based on the use of local varieties and open source seeds.

Beside tirelessly training farmers like Anna Molala and Maria, John Nzira also built a model farm, Ukuvuna Urban Farming Project in 2005, just outside Johannesburg, in Midrand, in Gauteng province. His one hectare model farm is a living proof of how you can produce many diverse goods without having a huge amount of land. To do so you have to «design a system that provide those needs so that you don't go and buy all the time.» We need to care for the environment by working with natural laws, adds Nzira. So on a small farm you have different components helping each other ultimately to support a family. The chicken manure is composted to the feed the plants. The chickens eat the snails to protect the plants. The plants in turn feed the chickens and the people.


Ukuvuna facilitates permaculture projects for smallholder farmers around southern Africa. «We identify potential cluster leaders per village,» says John. «The leader identified is the one who has a diversified food system at their homestead, has passion and is willing to help others. We met such women in Limpopo that were almost self-sufficient in food.»

«My focus is mainly on small-scale farmers because they are the ones who are actually producing over 70% of food in sub-Saharan Africa» says Nzira.

Europe has a much lower percentage of the working population employed in agriculture, compared to most African countries. But the interest in small scale farms and local production is growing everywhere.

The years of economic crisis have also seen quite a renaissance of the agriculture sector in Europe, with many young entrepreneurs entering the market.

Farmers networks and associations have teamed up to promote the use of agrobiodiversity in the field and on the table as a means to promote a more sustainable and environmentally sound system. The interest in locally produced food and short distribution chains has created new chains, many of which take advantage of selling online to urban dwellers who buy directly from the producers. Farmers markets have spawned in many European cities. Many are held weekly and people try different foods, sometimes going back to forgotten fruits and vegetables. Consumers are concerned about the quality of their food and the impact that food production has on the environment. The demand for locally produced, organic and accessible food has been increasing.

The key issue for most farmers and other players of the new food movement it remains the access to the basic commodity, the seeds. Situations are very different from country to country, also due to an unclear law framework. For instance, in more than 10 years, the Spanish Red de Semillas has built an active network involving both urban and rural people.


«We work with farmers. There are many young farmers who wish to work in a different manner. They prefer to use local and traditional varieties but often they do not have the knowledge to grow these products in an appropriate way,» tells Maria Carrascosa, the coordinator of the Sevillan branch of the network. «We organize many training activities, putting together young and elderly farmers to facilitate knowledge transfer. We help young farmers to learn the practice of seed production, conservation as well as breeding. They need to improve these varieties in the field, and promote local adaptation to climate and soil.» Red de semillas fosters also the organization of community seed banks, kept by the farmers’ network. This lowers the risk of losing a variety and facilitates the discovery of a forgotten one. They also lobby politically, building networks and alliances to change the law and make sure that space is available for local varieties. «The minimum,» concludes Carrascosa, «is that farmers could sell their seed directly at their farm or at a local market.»

There is also a lot of space for innovation. As we have seen in South Africa, with John Nzira’s experience, small farmers are changing the way they use local seeds; cultivating them in ways more adapted to local climates and soil. This might help to counteract the effects of drought and other environmental challenges. Studying old collections of seeds with new insights might even bring some unexpected surprises.

«Innovative technologies can open new market perspectives for old traditional varieties.»

Guy D’Hallewin, the head of research at the Institute of Food Production of the National Research Council at Sassari, Sardegna, in Italy, gives us uplifting insights to close our journey. «We had a collection of fruit varieties in our laboratories, particularly of pears, apples and prunes,» says Guy D’Hallewin. «They have not been cultivated for the last 20 years since other commercial varieties were more productive and respondent to the needs of the fruit industry.» D’Hallewin is one of those researchers whose enthusiasm has been fueled by the immense energy of people like Teresa Piras, who is on a quest for Sardinia’s old varieties.


«We have gone back to old varieties of fruit and found a number of very interesting characteristics,» D’Hallewin says. «Older varieties have a very high nutritional profile, which was never taken into consideration before. And they are resilient to many diseases. Moreover, they require less inputs, therefore their cultivation has less impact than that of the modern commercial varieties. Old varieties ripen for a much longer season, granting people fresh fruits for many months.» Guy D’Hallewin ends on an optimistic note. «Old traditions can hold many benefits. Thanks to the technologies we have today we can bring a completely new marketing perspective for old varieties.»


A story in three chapters

A project between two continents, Europe and Africa, and many countries. A story of 20 years of consolidation in the global seed market. To gain insights into implications and possible scenarios, through data, voices and people experiences.



SEEDcontrol is a project born from the partnership between formicablu, an Italian science communication agency, and Oxpeckers, a South African Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism. Specifically, the project has been designed by Elisabetta Tola and Fiona Macleod.


Research, analysis and text writing:

Elisabetta Tola and Marco Boscolo (formicablu), Michelle Nel (Oxpeckers)

Video interviews:

Marco Boscolo, Elisabetta Tola, Francesca Conti (formicablu)


Marco Boscolo, Giulia Rocco


Fantasy by Tonality Star - freemusicarchive.org

Visual storytelling e Data visualization:

Matteo Moretti

Dynamic data visualization development:

Riccardo Scalco


Elisabetta Tola, Marco Boscolo

Data collection, verification and analysis:

Phil Howard, Michigan State University
Marco Boscolo, Elisabetta Tola

Executive project management:

Elisabetta Tola, Fiona Macleod

Administrative project management:

Francesca Conti, Fiona Macleod

SEEDcontrol has been developed thanks to the "The Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme" of the European Journalism Center (EJC) - journalismgrants.org and with the co-funding of formicablu.

Special thanks to:

Riccardo Bocci, Salvatore Ceccarelli and Rete Semi Rurali
Red de Semillas
John Nzira
Teresa Piras and Domusamigas