CGIAR Gender

Crafting the next generation of CGIAR research – Gender dynamics in seed systems

One of the final outputs of the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research, a book will introduce some critical ideas for the next generation of CGIAR gender research, remarkably turning matters on their hand to ponder: ‘How can agricultural research contribute to gender equality in its own right?‘. This series introduces each of the forthcoming book chapters.

Netsayi Mudege (photo credit: CIP)
Netsayi Mudege (photo credit: CIP)

In this post, we zoom in on the chapter ‘Gender dynamics in seed systems‘ with co-author Netsayi Mudege, Gender Research Coordinator for the International Potato Center (CIP).

Most gender work done on seeds systems has focused on gender role division, on how women are excluded, how their role is not recognized (e.g. in conserving and/or preserving seeds) etc. For this work we looked at literature that considers how social relationships between men and women mediate in seed systems leading to either empowerment or disempowerment of men and women seed producers and farmers. We also seek to understand availability, affordability, accessibility of seeds and willingness to pay for seeds from a gender perspective. This paper engages with existing seed systems literature to show that seeds can actually empower women if they are engaged in seed production as seed entrepreneurs and if their knowledge and skills are acknowledged and used. We are also considering using the IFPRI framework of ‘Reach-Benefit-Empower’ (RBE) to discuss how equal rights, responsibilities, participatory decision-making can be integrated into seed systems development. While the developers of the RBE framework developed it to evaluate interventions, we believe that if some of its strategic components are integrated at the beginning of seed projects, we can begin to talk about empowerment in seed systems.

A key issue that the paper also addresses is that the private sector can easily engage in cereal seed systems because seed for cereals is less bulky. However, for some vegetatively propagated crops such as sweet potatoes which are bulky and perishable, the private sector may not be interested in making investments. This also has gender implications. For example, in many countries south of the Sahara women may have the responsibility of preserving seed for crops such as sweetpotato and are also interested in its cultivation because it is a food security crop. However, because no huge investments from either the public or private sector are being made into such crops, the seed can be affected by disease, seed degeneration leading to low yields which primarily affects women and other poor farmers who depend on these crops. Additionally, these crops are also governed by the same rules and regulations developed for grains and cereals. Since the seed is bulky, perishable (and unlike grain, transportation over long distances is expensive because of the bulky nature of the seed) there may be need to review the regulatory framework and develop regulations that are more suitable to govern the seed of these types of crops.


Seeds have the potential to empower women especially if they go into seed entrepreneurship, have access to seeds they want and thus have sovereignty over their food. We need to start engaging with the sovereignty movement debates. There are international protocols for example governing breeders rights and farmers rights over seed. How do these protocols and conventions affect not only farmers rights to seed but also in relation to the key seed systems concepts of availability, affordability, accessibility, seed health and so on. These may be areas that we may need to do more research in or to collaborate with others outside of the CGIAR working in these areas to understand how these regulation are interpreted and implemented by national systems with what impact on men and women farmers who depend on agriculture as a form of livelihood. Much like for gender-transformative approaches, we should perhaps engage much more on policy work and how developing seed policies can be more conducive for women’s empowerment.

Internationally there is a lot of work going on in the seed sector. For example, the Access to Seed Index developed to compare leading seed business globally on their efforts to enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers. The seed access index focuses on hybrid and cash crop seeds produced by the private sector. Maybe CGIAR and its partners could contribute to these indices to ensure that some of the indicators monitored are gender related. Also we can contribute to these indices to ensure that seed access indicators can be used for crops that are not commercial yet that are important to women (e.g. cassava, sweet potato, some legumes). We could develop a more gender-responsive index to capture the diversity of crops.


All this said, our review is showing that in most cases the CGIAR does not engage with the issue of how to empower women through seed systems. Most work that is currently ongoing is about reaching women and looking at benefits (e.g. access to seeds). By integrating this RBE framework in an innovative way we hope to develop more understanding on how seed systems and what type of arrangements can empower women in different contexts. Empowerment could range from decision-making on seeds at household level to influencing seed policies to make them gender-responsive. Having access to information can empower women to make decisions about seed, what crops to cultivate, how to invest in different seed types and so on. In spite of the acknowledgement that women need access to information to help make informed decisions, sometimes women are not even consulted because “it is men who know”. Seed, like any technology, does not have the power to empower or disempower women or groups of people as such. It is the social / political / economic context in which technology in this case seed interacts with people that matter. We need to understand the context in which seed system interventions take place to have a more holistic approach to empowerment if we want to empower farmers and women farmers in particular in the long run.