Ethiopian farmer grows seeds of survival

Crop production


Mohamad Abegaz Abuye is an Ethiopian farmer who has always known that the traditional, sometimes forgotten crop varieties of yesterday can help feed his family today.

Mohamad farms two hectares of land with his only son. He uses almost everything he grows to feed his family. He grows sorghum, corn teff, wheat, fava beans, lentils, and chickpeas. The sorghum and corn he was growing until recently were new varieties that needed chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow well.

This was expensive and it was difficult for him to pay for these inputs. It also meant that he and his family were exposed to dangerous chemicals and his land to chemical pollution.

And there were other disadvantages. These varieties were badly affected by bores and birds, and were poorly adapted to the local climate.

Like many other older farmers in this area, Mohamad remembered some of the traditional seed varieties and the benefits of growing them. These traditional varieties are also called landraces or folk seeds. They are plant varieties that have been bred and grown by farmers for many years because they meet specific local needs and climatic conditions. So Mohamad was interested in the “Seeds of Survival” project which distributes these traditional seeds to farmers in Ethiopia. The project is run by a Canadian international development organization called the Unitarian Service Committee (USC Canada). When he was invited to participate in the program, Mohamad joined enthusiastically.

The first year he agreed to grow the traditional seed varieties on one hectare of his land. He received four varieties of sorghum. Some of the sorghum varieties had not been grown in the area for many years. They had disappeared when farm families had to eat the seeds in times of drought and famine.

Mohamad is glad he tried these traditional varieties again. He continues to grow them on his farm because they have many advantages. He saves money because he does not need to buy any commercial chemical fertilizers or pesticides. All of the varieties except one tolerate diseases and pests, including birds. And his yield is higher than it was with the newer varieties he had grown before. He is surprised at how strong and healthy the sorghum is.

One of the sorghum varieties that the project distributes was considered to be completely lost. But the Ethiopian project manager found a sample last year quite by chance. He noticed a farmer carrying two heads of the lost sorghum type and bought them. Now these have been grown and multiplied in the farmer’s fields. The variety is still endangered, but it’s on the road to recovery and in another year or two it will give enough seeds for all the farmers in the area.

Another important point is that the Seeds of Survival project buys the crop back at a better price than in the market. This is important because Mohamad’s farm produces just enough food for his family.

Since Mohamad started growing these traditional varieties his neighbours have been watching and are impressed with how well the crops are doing. Many of them are now interested in receiving some of these same seeds to try in their own fields.

Mohamad will now work with scientists and extension workers to continue growing and breeding local hardy seeds that farmers know give good yields in their unique village growing environments.


The Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USC Canada) is an international development organization with programs in Africa and Asia. The USC’s “Seeds of Survival” program began in Ethiopia in 1988. It works with scientists and farmers to preserve and promote the use of local hardy seeds that produce harvests without the use of expensive chemical inputs. These traditional seeds in turn supply world agriculture with the genetic material to develop new seed strains. USC recognizes the interdependence of our global food supply and the expertise of farmers in securing stable food production.

USC Canada has produced a Seeds of Survival educational kit which discusses the importance of seed preservation and the challenge faced in ensuring the survival of our food producing seeds.

For more information about the Seeds of Survival project or to order the educational kit (available in French and English), please contact:
USC Canada
56 Sparks St.
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1P 5B1