The sun is scorching, but clouds are slowly gathering up in the sky signalling another downpour. Bayison Zikachepa, a mother of four, walks to a seed stall to choose her preferred seeds for what she says is her first attempt at farming. She notices a group of unfamiliar vendors staring at her with inviting smiles, and she has no trouble picking one from the available options.

“I want to buy maize, pigeon peas and leafy vegetable seeds,” Zikachepa tells Thomas Napalale, a seed vendor trading under Genesis Produce in Phalombe, Malawi. While dangling her voucher, she gazes at the stack of certified maize seed, picks a 4 kg packet and clutches it under her armpit. She goes on to lift a 2 kg pack of pigeon peas before landing on some leafy vegetable seeds. “This is what I will buy,” Zikachepa says as she hands over her voucher to Napalale. Satisfied, she elbows her way out of the vendor’s stall to give a chance to hundreds of other buyers waiting their turn.

This is the Bona Primary School grounds in Phalombe district where the last seed fair is taking place. The fairs targeted 776 beneficiaries out of the 7,500 farmers in the district. As she heads to her home in Solijala village, Traditional Authority (T/A), Jenala, Zikachepa cannot contain her joy. “I am happy I have bought the seeds I needed,” she explains. “This is the first time I have bought the seeds I need because often we are given seeds that we don’t need.” Zikachepa is one of the 55,000 beneficiaries receiving seed vouchers in eight of the country’s 25 districts affected by floods and prolonged droughts during the 2014/15 growing season.

During the floods in January 2015, 1.1 million people were affected, 64 000 hectares of crop fields were destroyed, 336,000 people were displaced and 101 people lost their lives. An additional 172 people were reported missing, a development that made President Peter Mutharika declare a State of Disaster on 13 January 2015. Besides the impact of floods, the production cycle of farmers in the hard-hit districts was severely affected by prolonged dry spells, which posed a gloomy food security outlook, with an assessment indicating that 2.8 million people required urgent food aid in the country.

In response, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Malawi partnered with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Save the Children, Concern Universal, Project Concern International (PCI), Catholic Development Commission (CADECOM) and Community Partnership for Relief and Development (COPRED) — with funding from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) — to support the Government of Malawi’s 2015/16 Food Insecurity Response Plan. The CERF-supported project aimed to provide assorted seed varieties to 55,000 food-insecure households in Balaka, Chikwawa, Nsanje, Neno, Phalombe, Zomba, Thyolo and Chitipa districts – eight of the 25 affected districts.

Previously in Malawi, FAO centrally procured and distributed seeds to farmers. However, in April 2015, after the floods, FAO commissioned a seed security assessment to CRS, which recommended the need to strengthen local seed systems through seed fairs. These seed fairs had already been piloted in the country by CRS and other partners but not on such a large scale. They covered 55,000 farmers in eight districts and were held from November to December 2015. Each farmer identified as a beneficiary got a voucher for K10 500, of which half was used for cereal seed (maize, sorghum or millet seed), and the other for legumes and vegetable seed. With this amount, each farmer received 4 kg of cereal seed, 2 kg of legume seed and 1 kg of vegetable seed. For cereal seed, it was up to the farmers to choose hybrid maize, OPV maize, sorghum and millet, while for legume seed, they had to choose from beans, pigeon peas, cow peas or ground nuts. Apart from providing farmers a chance to buy certified seeds of their choice, the seed fairs also ensure that local agro-traders have an opportunity to sell their seed through informal markets where certified seed is uncommon. In addition, seed fairs allow local competition for quality seed and stimulate local seed systems.

Chifuniro Kanyengo, a seed vendor trading under Agro-Mix Suppliers in Phalombe, commends the seed fairs, saying they offer an opportunity to agro-dealers for good markets. “I cannot, on my own, go to rural areas because I am not sure of who will buy,” says Kanyengo, speaking from the Saidi Primary School where there are 424 beneficiaries. “I came here because we were asked by the agricultural extension workers to participate in this seed fair.”

Thomas Napalale of Genesis Produce Limited also hailed the seed fairs for according them a chance to find ready markets in rural areas where they hardly reach for fear of poor sales. “Most of us vendors are happy to sell our seeds here within a short period of time,” he says, participating in what was his first seed fair. “It was not going to be easy to sell our products here if there were no such seed fairs.”

Osmund Chapotoka, district agricultural development officer for Phalombe, explains that the seed fairs have proven to be the right approach for helping farmers access certified seeds on the informal market. The Government’s involvement in the seed fairs was in identifying and briefing the agro-dealers, identifying and registering beneficiaries, inspecting and approving the seed and monitoring all activities on market day. “These are some of the key roles which we played as a Ministry in the whole exercise, apart from managing logistics such as communication, transport and public address systems necessary for a successful seed fair,” says Chapotoka.

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