Custodians of Life: Meet the Ugandan women reviving indigenous seeds

Kagole and Mildred are smallholder farmers from Buliisa District, Western Uganda. In this interview they describe the virtues of indigenous seed varieties, losses in the diversity of these seeds, and how, inspired by regular community dialogues, they have started a women’s farming and seed saving group to revive indigenous seeds and traditional, agroecological farming methods.


Members of Tulime Hamwe Mbibo Zikade Women’s Group at a community dialogue on the shores of Lake Albert, Uganda.

Within one year we want to see a garden full of indigenous seeds …We want to see a community with its own seeds, seeds we can leave behind us to future generations in the years ahead when we are no longer here.


Kagole: In our culture here in Bunyoro, most men are not directly involved in cultivation or in digging. The issue of food insecurity mainly touches the hearts and souls of women because they are the main providers of food for the table. If the children begin crying it is the women who are going to feel this pain.

Even if you ask our husbands, few of them could even mention a few seed varieties, whereas us women know many because we pick the seeds, we live with the seeds, we know which variety works for what and where, we know which varieties are useful. As seed is of paramount importance to us as women, we need to lead the movement for the revival of indigenous seeds here in Uganda.

We have been holding dialogues about the seeds we used to grow where we bring together many women from different communities, and we were inspired to revive our indigenous seeds and our knowledge about them. We realised we can’t do this alone! So I and other fellow women in this community decided to form an association of women (Tulime Hamwe Mbibo Zikade Women’s Group) around here who have similar aspirations to revive the seeds. We have now identified a garden where we will plant the seeds and this will be a kind of demonstration garden for the communities to come and learn how important it is to revive our seeds.

We have thirty members so far and many others want to join.


Mildred (Chair person of Tulime Hamwe Mbibo Zikade)Our purpose is to grow those indigenous seeds so that we can teach the younger ones how to grow them, how to keep them and the main use of these in our bodies. This is because there are some younger women who do not know this and we want to bring back those indigenous crops our grandmothers used to grow for the next generation.

Our message is that we should grow indigenous crops, because they can last long and they are resistant to pests. And they are very healthy to our young ones.


Kagole: Within one year we want to see a garden full of indigenous seeds and our main interest is not to keep these seeds for ourselves. We want to multiply them and distribute them among our other likeminded community members, because we want to see a hybrid free society in this area. We want to see a community with its own seeds, seeds we can leave behind us to future generations in the years ahead when we are no longer here.


Mildred: We want our group to have enough food per-person so people can sustain themselves. Also we hope to teach people how to keep seeds for planting in their own places in other areas.


Kagole: It is so important to revive the indigenous seeds now because these seeds have kept with us for generations. We have lived with these seeds and our grandparents have lived with these seeds. They were so useful and so nutritious, but now, with the introduction of hybrids, we have seen that our indigenous seeds can disappear and are going extinct. As a result we have seen persistent hunger in many parts of this country.

 These indigenous seeds help to stop hunger and famine because they are nutritious and they take longer in the soil. These seeds give us foods that can be stored in the soil and these help us to avoid famine. Because these seeds could also be saved for longer, there was no need for us to lack food.


Mildred: Yes, that is according to what we have seen. I will give the example of cassava. The indigenous cassava used to stay for about three years in the ground but these ones of today (government hybrid varieties), even after only six months you will find them rotten or spoiled.

The benefits of indigenous seeds are for the health of our body. I remember long ago our grandmothers used to cook for us those energy foods. For example these peas, which in our language we call Endemesa. Those were the key foods that our grandmothers used to cook for the children early in the morning so they have energy and you find that the kids are very healthy. So if we grow those things, in fact we are going to be very, very healthy again!


Kagole: We have revived so many indigenous seed varieties that we thought we had lost . We have endemesa, beans, local maize, local groundnuts, cassava including bukaraka, nyaloko, ngwanga varieties. We have sweet potatoes including nyambonora, labeja, enyerebadi, kansegenoki varieties. We have a watermelon called biwacho and also our indigenous cucumber and many other varieties.


Mildred: We also know there are some indigenous crops we don’t have here, so we are trying to find those people who have them to help us locate these varieties and bring them back and pass them on to the future generations, who must learn what we used to plant. You are not supposed to sell the seeds so we ask our friends to share them with us so we can also plant them. 


Kagole: This work is very timely. In the wake of persistent drought the government’s thinking has been that bringing in the hybrids would be very useful. They think if these hybrids grow rapidly they can therefore save us from famine. They also think they are drought resistant which is not the case. So the hunger continues persistently because of climate change.

We think reviving our indigenous seeds will go a long way to curbing such calamities because they are many in number and type. They are pesticide and herbicide free, both of which we believe contribute to the effects of climate change because they dry and poison the soils. Reviving indigenous seeds will help us achieve food security and food sovereignty.


Translation by Robert Katemburura.


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