Global Resources

Celebrating African rural women: custodians of seed, food, and traditional knowledge for climate change resilience

Author: L. Hosken (ed)
Publication Date: Nov 2015

In an unprecedented fashion, much of Africa is now at risk of losing a vast wealth of knowledge about crops, nutrition, medicines, biodiversity, ecosystems, and more, just as it is needed most.  The present generation of elders exist at a time when traditional ways are under threat from rapidly changing social and environmental contexts, and it is vital that this knowledge should continue to inform and complement contemporary science and technology, and not simply become lost. To argue this case in-depth, the African Biodiversity Network and the Gaia Foundation have produced this report that explores the central role that women and traditional knowledge plays in the resilience and diversity of local, rural food systems across the continent. It is hoped that the document will help spur discussion and debate, and inspire greater inclusion and documentation of African women’s knowledge and roles in agriculture, within a framework of peaceful community building.


The first section of the report introduces and contextualises the role of African women as custodians of seed and food diversity, describing Africa’s rich biocultural and crop diversity, and the unique role women play in maintaining and passing on traditional knowledge often bound to identity-affirming sacred sites, rituals, and symbolism. A guest interview with Professor Patricia Howard, author and political ecologist, discusses the status women derive domestically through this knowledge, and how this role is unjustly marginalised, under-researched, and unaccounted for in official statistics. Key messages include that: seed is at the centre of agriculture and food systems; women tend to be the main custodians of wild foods; and the present generation of elders are possibly the last generation which retain living memory of Africa’s rich biodiversity.


Section two discusses a number of ways in which women’s role in agriculture and the community is undermined: the impacts of colonisation and globalisation; the commercialisation of agriculture into agri-business; the legal barriers presented by GMO patenting; land-grabbing for extraction and biofuels; and pressure to narrow crop-diversity from commercial interests that place stress on local seed exchange systems and biodiversity. This section also has an interview with feminist, philosopher of science, and science policy advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva, who is committed to protecting farmers’ rights to their own seed stores. The section concludes that colonialism brought with it Victorian values regarding women that laid the foundation for decades of gender discrimination. Additionally, free trade agreements have negatively impacted local producers, who are unable to compete with large corporations.


Section three concerns the restoration of women’s traditional knowledge and leadership, and its importance to increasing resilience and food security. The concept of agroecology is introduced and explained, with the aid of a selection of expert interviews. A key message is that agroecology, an approach that builds on and empowers traditional knowledge in a holistic fashion, is ecologically, socially, and economically just, and if used widely enough can be effective at mitigating climate change. Additionally, community-led dialogues, reflection, and research must be continued and strengthened.


Before the conclusion to the report, readers hear from women’s voices in the field, with words from practitioners, advocates. and seed custodians in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa, and Benin. Finally, four key priorities are identified and outlined in the conclusion of the report:


  • The aggressive corporate free trade agenda being imposed on Africa is having deeply negative effects on rural communities and their capacity to feed the continent. Long-established local seed exchange practices are under threat, and industrial extraction and farming is depleting wells and polluting water supplies. A profound and radical policy shift is required that halts the corporate handover of Africa’s land and seeds, and instead supports small scale farming instead.
  • In order to secure seed diversity and climate change resilience, it is vital that the role of women in agriculture and governance, including their traditional knowledge, be both recognised and dignified.
  • It is vital that knowledge transfer be facilitated so that the wealth of knowledge seed variety is passed on from generation to generation. Elder women are an invaluable resource in this regard.
  • In light of growing corporate control, it is important that strong social movements coordinate in support of local and smallholder farmers. To this end, the Food Sovereignty movement and others have an ever more critical role to play in supporting women and their communities to take back and sustain control over their lands and seed systems.