I am grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to Kenya in March of 2024 to visit with and contribute to the grassroots local organization Seed Savers Network Kenya (SNNK). SSNK has been working with local indigenous farmers on seed saving, planting food forests and inspiring a network of 75 bioregional seed banks and over 7000 seed ambassadors. The journey was made possible with the assistance of the Global Open Source Seed Initiative. 

Please join me on a little glimpse of my journey with my 17 year old son Jasper and my colleague Jack Kloppenberg (a founder and member of Board of Directors for the Open Source Seed Initiative OSSI) an organization dedicated to maintaining fair and open access to plant genetic resources worldwide.

For context, Kenya has some of the most restrictive seed laws in the world. A British colony until they gained independence in 1964, 98% of the seed available for farmers to plant is imported through Agri-business giants like Bayer (who acquired Monsanto in 2018 for $63 billion), DeKalb (a division of Monsanto) and others.

It is currently illegal to sell seeds in Kenya unless they are coated in insecticides and fungicides and the variety must be registered with an official government list, which costs more than the average Kenyan earns in a year (per variety). As a result, Kenyan farmers have very limited access to seeds, despite having been agrarian peoples for millennia. Protection of this relationship is also included in the constitution which promises to "recognize and ensure the protect the ownership of indigenous plants and varieties, the genetic and diverse characteristics and their use by the communities of Kenya."

The only Kenyan owned seed company, Kenya Seed, is owned by the government. Wes Kenya Seed is currently being sold to create liquidity to service debt from the World Bank and will most likely be sold to Bayer. Unfortunately this is the situation throughout much of the global south - a vestige of late stage colonialism. 

Don, Dominic & Jack in front of a tower garden at Seed Savers Network Kenya

We travelled to nearby Gilgil to see an AgriShop with Dalmus Mitei (SSNK) and Daniel Wanjama both of SSNK. The AgriShop was a tiny stall selling mostly fertilizers and insecticides and a small offering of chemically treated seeds for corn, kale, sukuma wiki greens, and a very few others. Then we went to Beatrice’s small farm where she has a seed bank in an insulated room partially temperature moderated by jerrycans filled with water. Beatrice stewards a few hundred varieties of maize, beans, limas, dolichos (lab lab) peas (gram), millet, sorghum, peppers, tomatoes, sukuma wiki, local traditional herbs and more. It was deeply insightful to hear her explain the gender dynamics at work where girls are not encouraged to go to school, so their English skills are generally poor and they are confined to the home and have little economic autonomy or self-determination. Beatrice shared that families are inclined to prioritize the dowry that their daughters can receive in marriage.

At a government controlled AgriVet shop - the only place to buy seeds in Kenya

In this regard, seed saving skills which Beatrice teaches local women here at the tin roofed, cardboard insulated open air classroom, enable women to have more abundant and diverse gardens. From these gardens they have greater nutrition to feed their families and can sell excess produce to have spending money. It’s amazing how something so simple can make such a big difference. In this regard I was struck with the simple reality: seed freedom leads to women's rights which is fundamental to human rights.

Jack Kloppenberg and 2 local seed ambassadors for SSNK  

Three other local women farmers visited while we were there. I could tell that they held Beatrice in high regard. I was grateful for the experience and for my son Jasper to witness their incredibly humble reality. Beatrice generously gifted us 11 varieties of beans, limas, millet, sorghum and a chili pepper. From the SSNK website:

"Women are recognized as the main custodians of seed as they manage the preservation, diversity, selection and storage of seed in most if not all African communities. Many of these activities are not defined as “economically active employment” in national accounts but they are essential to the well-being of rural households. Despite women’s central roles as food, seed and care providers in rural communities, many continue to experience rights violations and lack of agency, self-confidence and a sense of control over their own lives. Seed Savers Network Kenya is committed to shift the cultural attitudes and structures that limit women, creating space for them to take control of their own lives, advocate for themselves and others, and take on leadership within their communities and beyond through agroecology and seed saving."

Seed Bank steward & Seed Ambassador Beatrice

We then visited a local farmers market that happens 6 days per week with another local farmer woman, we saw tomatoes, avocados, bananas, passionfruit, citrus, jelly melon, herbs and a few vendors with diverse sacks of beans, peas, cowpeas of a variety of types, maize, potatoes and more.

A local daily market where a wide array of locally adapted beans and peas are available for food but not allowed for seed

We met with the farmers again and I presented a bit about our operations at Siskiyou Seeds and the journey of developing and stabilizing new varieties which was quite helpful to connect with the farmers in a way that they could relate to. We also had a good discussion around what constitutes “Quality Seed” as there are widespread rumors throughout Kenya about “fake seed”. Hopefully I can distill this information into guidelines & protocols. Once again, the farmers all dressed to impress! A lovely highlight for me was when two of the most outspoken women farmers passionately related to me how they now have renewed hope and inspiration from our interactions and are excited to apply what they have learned.

Meeting with local indigenous farmers at SSNK

In the afternoon, we made the long drive to the other side of the lake into the highlands at nearly 9000’ (SSNK is at 6000’ by comparison). As we climbed, we the vegetation became lusher and greener with little farm plots tucked here and there nearly everywhere. Poverty and resourcefulness were rampant, with roadside vendors selling little buckets of cooking charcoal. We also passed groups of people washing and packing huge piles of carrots that I later learned are sold to Uganda. I learned from Dominic Kimani that this land was once vast forests called the Mao, it has largely been deforested for more farmland, he also related that the farmers here do quite well because of year round planting and cropping, whereas, farmers down lower were waiting for the “big rains” to come to plant and most fields were plowed but empty.

After driving up narrow dirt roads on a mountainside we came to the village called Likia which had wattle and daub mud buildings with tin roofs and every square meter planted with crops including potatoes, peas, corn, black nightshade, swiss chard (which they called spinach), cabbage, sukuma wiki and more. About 50 farmers were waiting to greet us, all charmingly dressed in their finest – men in sport coats, and women in dresses, all of them with head scarves of some sort. Many were over 60, although there were teens and children too.

We looked at a potato variety trial program that SSNK had initiated with them 2 years prior. Some spoke English, where most spoke their native Cucio dialect, so lengthy translation was in order. They had questions around how to address various potato diseases that they were contending with. At the end of our visit, we assembled for a group photo in rows, during which women were running their fingers through my and Jasper’s hair, giggling in wonderment. I got the feeling that our presence created quite the stir as every child stared and waved. We were far off the beaten track in an area that absolutely no tourists ever go. I am glad that Jasper came as he almost tried to back out of coming on this visit, which I am sure will be one to remember forever, as I know it was a radically new experience for me.

Evaluating potato trials at 9000' in Likia with indigenous farmers

It was a unique challenge to find ways to relate and communicate across the huge chasms of cultural, contextual, economic and language differences. But I will always remember the smiles and laughter that permeated the experience. I admire the bright joy of living close to the land that these farmers exuded.

Many farmers walked over to assess potato trials with SSNK staff in the Kenyan highlands near Likia

We met with a group of about 15 farmers that are all seed ambassadors with SSNK. I felt deep respect for this farming community. For the meeting, men dressed in suits and slacks, women in bright colored dresses and head scarves. The discussions became quite animated. One outspoken woman farmer encouraged the farmers to “go mad” at the repressive seed laws and organize a march in protest. I felt honored and inspired to be present for this discussion. 


Local Seed Ambassador and Seed Bank Manager (standing), with Jasper Tipping on one side & Jack Kloppenberg (OSSI) seated next to him

Being on the equator, this day, the Spring Equinox, seemed to hold less significance. Everyone was awaiting the long rains which determine the seasonality here much more the seasonal day length changes of our northern climate. 

We began with a new group of 20 farmers and students who gathered in the morning after breakfast to learn how to become advocates for seed sovereignty and farmers rights. Two women shared some and dances that we participated in a circle that set a sweet tone for the day. Then we met with SSNK staff to recap what we learned, synthesize and determine next steps full with abundant potential and opportunity.

After lunch we drove back to Nairobi. I was grateful to sit next to Margaret who is a 40 something woman nearly done with her Law degree and focused upon indigenous farmer rights. She was able to relate some unique cultural difference from her native West Kenya home near Lake Victoria, compared to East Kenya. She described some of the culinary and cultural differences, such as how people eat their Ugali (which was originally made from Sorghum, but is now predominantly white maize since its introduction). If people tear off a big piece they are seen as hearty and have a grab life by the horns approach to life. Whereas if they take tiny pieces they are seen as timid and cautious. Margaret is aiming to work with SSNK to initiate a lawsuit based on the tenant in the Kenyan constitution that ensures the rights of farmers and seed sovereignty. 

Left: Don shares the basics for growing quality seeds. Right: Ann Wambui, seed bank manager at SSNK at the beautiful door to their seed vault.

Left: Mary Wambui Wakahiu, SSNK Program Officer
Right: Mercy at the Nyakazi Organics value added production facility at the SSNK campus that helps farmers dehydrate tradition food crops for storage and distribution. 

Left: My son Jasper Tipping with the Nyakazi Organics dried greens including traditional crops like Collards (aka Sukuma wiki), Pumpkin Leaves, Spider Plant (aka Cleome), Amaranth greens and Black Nightshade. Right:  Bean trials at SSNK.

Left: Nairobi Sunrise Right: L-R, SSNK Staff in front of the Adobe seed bank, Daniel Wanjama (Director), Margaret (visiting student attorney from Nairobi University), Dominic Kimani (Advocacy, Monitoring & Evaluation Officer), Don Tipping, Jack Kloppenberg (OSSI), Dalmus Mitei (Programme Officer), Tabitha Munyiri (Communications Officer) 

*All photos taken with consent.