‘Seed Mother’ who never went to school has lessons for scientists

Radheshyam Jadhav Pune | Updated on March 06, 2019


Working from a mud house in a remote Maharashtra village, Rahibai Popere is taking farming back to its roots

Twenty years ago, when her grandson fell ill, Rahibai Popere was convinced vegetables and foodgrains containing ‘poison’ had made the child unhealthy.

She asked her son to stop buying vegetables and foodgrains grown using hybrid seeds, chemicals and fertilisers. And then started a journey to conserve and save indigenous seeds, which she says need just air and water for cultivation.

Rahibai, who was illiterate, established a seed bank in her small mud house for the conservation and revival of crop diversity and wild food resources. Over time, many farmers obtained indigenous seeds from her.

She toiled for 20 years and, today, she has conserved and multiplied about 43 landraces of 17 crops (paddy, hyacinth bean, millets, pulses, oil seeds etc) by establishing a germplasm conservation centre.

She has developed expertise in System of Rice Intensification (SRI) methods, improved cultivation practices for tomato and hyacinth bean, participatory seed selection, organic farming techniques and nursery establishment. Rahibai is unaware of these scientific terms and theories; rather, she develops her own terms and practices her own theories in her field.

She works with 3,500 farmers, sharing her knowledge and experiments. About 122 landraces of 32 crops are under conservation in her seed bank.

Living in the remote Kombhalne village of Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, Rahibai, who comes from a tribal community, has taken a proactive role in the Kalsubai Parisar Biyanee Savardhan Samiti, Akole, where farmers are working to conserve traditional seeds.

“Twenty years ago, when I started collecting and conserving traditional seeds, people and my family members laughed at me and said no one will use these seeds. But I was determined. I warned my sons against growing hybrid seeds in our field and then I took the lead in farming using traditional seeds,” she says.

Rahibai started her mission all alone. “I was married at the age of 12 and I never went to school. But I wanted to gain knowledge about farming, which my forefathers carried out for centuries,” she says.

Subsequently, other women began to join her.

Rahibai has facilitated the establishment of seed banks in nearby villages. Traditional seeds are now in demand in Maharashtra and Gujarat. She and other women use traditional technologies to conserve seeds using mud, cow dung and neem leaves.

“People say traditional seeds can’t be used to grow abundant food grains and vegetables. But I want to ask: do you need abundantly growing food which is poisonous, or healthy food? Our seeds don’t need fertilisers and pesticides. Air and water are enough. Also, crops grown on traditional seeds are drought resistant,” she insists.


Today, her efforts are being recognised. Various organisations have conferred her with awards and the BBC has included her in the list of 100 inspiring and influential women worldwide.

The Maharashtra government on Sunday inaugurated a ‘seed bank’ and home constructed for Rahibai in her remote village. Agriculture scientists and students will visit it to learn from the ‘Seed Mother’, the name she has been given by the people who work for her.

“Believe me, we are unhealthy and vulnerable to diseases only because of the poisonous food we eat. We can grow enough to cater to our needs. This is what I am going to say to all those who will come to me to learn about traditional farming,” she adds.

Published on March 04, 2019

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