Seed Programs International

Rouse Ramirez helps organize an Ixil community of women in Chajul, Guatemala
Rouse Ramirez helps organize an Ixil community of women in Chajul, Guatemala

When we discuss SPI programs, we talk a lot about livelihoods. So, what is a livelihood? A livelihood encompasses the capabilities, assets, and strategies that people use to make a living. And a productive livelihood is an important part of our social, emotional, and economic well-being. Productive, successful livelihoods require access to resources. When it comes to women’s agricultural livelihoods, we know that female farmers produce more than half the developing world's food, yet they own less than 2% of the land and have significantly less access to the tools they need for success — inputs like seeds, tools, and knowledge.

At their core, SPI programs provide access to resources so people can grow food and establish a productive livelihood. We join with women's gardening efforts in the most impoverished countries worldwide by providing top-quality vegetable seeds and locally-driven support through programs that provide them with a path to empowerment, income, and nutrition.

We work to develop and support these paths because we recognize the powerful potential of communities and their members to create a hunger-free future when given the chance. It is the community members, not SPI, who drive social change to adopt these pathways. Our programs are partnerships that rely upon the expertise and direction of local leaders; this is one way we ensure that our investment is mutual and will continue long after we are no longer involved.

One such partnership is our women’s empowerment initiative in Chajul, Guatemala. Tucked away in the highlands of western Guatemala, the small but vibrant Ixil community of Chajul was devastated by a 36-year civil war. Many indigenous Guatemalan women who survived the horrific violence are living with the trauma of losing family members, friends, and neighbors — just one legacy of the country’s civil war.

SPI’s gardening program in Chajul provides resources and training for women to create and maintain backyard gardens. Gardening provides opportunities for these women to participate in the restoration and strengthening of their local economy, and simultaneously provides fresh, nutritious vegetables for their families. Gardening also provides an ideal space for psychosocial recovery from the ongoing trauma of war. In other words, this partnership program offers all the right components for a successful and productive livelihood.

“The biggest benefit from the garden is that families get to eat fresh vegetables at home that are full of nutrients.” — Rouse Ramirez, Chajul Area Program Coordinator

Limited access to resources is not the only barrier to livelihoods. Illiteracy is a significant hurdle for most participants. It prevents them from advocating for themselves or gaining access to key resources, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Many of the women are the main source of livelihood for their families, but limited access to information and key resources hinders their efforts to fortify their livelihoods.

With the help of our in-country Program Coordinator, Rouse Ramirez, women in the Chajul area are organizing themselves to support each other and overcome these common barriers. Rouse visits with women in their homes to ensure they don’t fall behind or miss out on group activities due to family obligations. When a group member isn’t able to access a community resource, Rouse brings the access to her! This community is a compelling model of women empowering women, and themselves.

While women in this community don’t have easy access to literacy and other education, they are beginning to partner with other women’s groups to exchange for access to education and vocational training. Mothers in the group share the dream that their children will have the educational opportunities they did not, and together they are realizing that dream. We’ll share more about this program as it develops. If their work is inspiring to you, I hope you’ll consider supporting our work with them.

Students Learning to Garden

Students Learning to Garden

Hello Haiti supporters!

We've had a busy few months following up on our initial shipments to Haiti, negotiating new requests for seed and support, and networking with Haitian partners on the ground in preparation for the SPI Haitian Partnership Network stakeholder meeting. Although the greatest need is still for providing high quality seeds to replace the gardens and seed resources that were destroyed by Hurricane Matthew, we're also working with partners to take steps steps toward rebuilding the community systems that were disrupted by Matthew.

Since our last update, we've shipped 4,700 packets of seed to four partners. Something I really like about our partnerships is knowing that seeds usually reach more farmers and families than those who are supported by our immediate partner. For instance, two partners recently reported that their shipments were subsequently shared with other organizations — seven organizations from one partner and five local schools from another. Having partners on the ground and invested in the community allows our seed to reach people we could not have reached on our own. This is only one of the reasons we love our partners!

Compost Basket, via CEC
Compost Basket, via CEC
Compost Basket, via CEC

Today’s we’ll talk about composting — right in the middle of your garden! But first, what do we mean by a “smart garden” idea? Many people think that here at SPI we do a lot of teaching of how to grow vegetables. The truth is actually the opposite: we do a lot of learning. Our program philosophy is to engage local leaders to share gardening skills and ideas with seed recipients. Their skills and ideas are truly smart gardening: these techniques use every available resource already on-site to minimize waste and cost. Water is considered a precious, finite resource -- a worldwide truth that is too easy to ignore when we have an apparently infinite supply coming out of our hose. Gardening can feel easy where amazon.com, Wal-Mart, or our local store sell every type of soil amendment or tool we might need. But this type of gardening uses a lot of resources and can be expensive for the gardener. By learning from regions like East Africa and Central America, we can save money, reduce household waste, and maybe even grow better vegetables and flowers.

Today’s idea is the compost basket. “Basket” is not a literal term, but instead refers to any structure you might build in the middle of your garden to hold compost. U.S. gardeners are fond of composting in a special pile or bin and then carrying the finished material to the garden. But this work is unnecessary, and the missed opportunity comes when rain falls on the pile or moisture seeps from a covered compost bin: much of the wonderful soil-enhancing nutrient potential is lost into the dirt nowhere near your garden.

Instead, steal this idea practiced all over the world, coming to us most recently from our collaborator Sostine Mukhebi at the Kenya Department of Agriculture: compost right in the middle of your garden, and then water your garden through the compost pile. Here’s how:

  1. Make a tube or bin-like structure out of material of your choice. It can be about 2 feet wide and 4-5 feet tall; a section of wire fencing rolled into a cylinder works well. If you’re more of an artisan you can form a truly basket-like structure from woven sticks or vines. Place it in the middle of your garden bed and mark its footprint. Remove it.
  2. Dig out this area below ground level. Sostine recommends 60 cm (about two feet) but your soil might make that difficult; do what you can. The width of the hole should be about the same. Put your bin structure in the hole and fill up to soil level with a mix of rocks and organic material. This initial effort to ensure below-ground drainage will help the good stuff from your compost pile reach your vegetable plants’ roots.
  3. Prepare your garden bed around the compost basket just like you usually would. Allow 6 inches from the basket to where your first plants grow, just in case the level of nutrient flow from your compost is very strong.


Keyhole Garden, Ethiopia, Photo by David Snyder via Nifty Homestead
Keyhole Garden, Ethiopia, Photo by David Snyder via Nifty Homestead


Now that your compost basket is proudly centering your garden bed, just add any compostable material: kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, old oak leaves, lawn clippings, and aged manure from livestock or poultry. Periodically layer in sticks to keep air flowing through the pile, as it’s hard to turn the compost. If your neighborhood sports wild critters like raccoons, rats, or bears, avoid any prepared foods more fragrant than vegetable peelings, or build the bin from a sturdy narrow gauge type of fencing and keep it covered.

Water your plants as normal when they are very small, but as they grow, or in addition, water the garden bed via the compost basket in the middle. This is an especially good use of “greywater” such as rainfall captured from your roof, or water leftover from the kids’ play pool on a hot day.

Want to learn more and see diagrams and examples?

This article from Nifty Homestead shows many examples of keyhole gardens which are a type of round raised bed with a compost basket in the middle. Notice how many different ways the compost basket can be built!

This article from Hungary highlights compost baskets as an especially appropriate method for urban areas with limited good soil.

Training Workshop

Training Workshop

One of the first questions we ask when considering a new partnership is, "Can we facilitate this partner's growth toward self-sufficiency and resilience?" Each partner is unique — each community has access to different resources and expertise, and we rely upon local leaders with boots on the ground to help make key decisions in our programs. Our programs aim to first invest in local relationships that will help ensure our partner's resilience long after we are no longer directly supporting a program in the region.

When we begin looking at seed selection together, we first determine whether quality seed is already accessible though the partner's existing relationships. Our partners often already know which vegetables work best and whether good seed is available locally. Access to good seed is one of the primary drivers for long-term agricultural sustainability, and FIPAH's research teams (CIALs) are actively working to establish self-sustaining local seed production. Since quality seed is available locally, our role in this partnership has shifted to support FIPAH and the CIALs by working together to purchase appropriate vegetable seeds and offer seed saving workshops through the field schools (ECAs).

In a recent report, FIPAH reported the purchase and distribution of seed to Yorito, Vallecillo, Otoro, Lempira Sur, and Intibucá Sur — regions where seed production is being taught. The number of SPI-equivalent packets includes:

  • 12,000 Pepper
  • 31,000 Tomato
  • 4,800 Cabbage
  • 3,000 Radish
  • 1,200 Squash
  • 4,150 Cilantro
  • 2,000 Onion
  • 1,100 Cucumber
  • 484 Beet
  • 15,00 Soy
  • 694 Mustard Greens
  • 173 Watermelon
  • 10 Celery
  • 10 Parsley

We're looking forward to hearing what happened with the seeds and we'll tell you about that in the next report. Until then, thank you for your continued support and for helping to strengthen these communities toward resilience!

Workshop Participant

Workshop Participant

Doing the Work!

Doing the Work!

Contact Us

Seed Programs International

PO Box 9163
Asheville, NC 28815


Seed Programs Canada (Affiliate)

Registered Charity No. 839858107RR0001
Lombardy, ON

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Seed Programs International (SPI)

Seed Programs InternationalSeed Programs International (SPI) is a non-profit, tax exempt, non-governmental humanitarian organization.

We work thorough other humanitarian organizations, church groups, service clubs and individual donors, to provide quality seed to impoverished communities in developing countries enabling them to grow some of their own food. In addition to seed, SPI provides critical seed expertise and experience operating seed based self help programs.”

SPI is operated by individuals with over 50 years seed industry experience plus over 20 years experience in vegetable research and production. We also have 15 years experience operating programs that have successfully shipped seed to over 70 countries on five continents. SPI has shipped enough seed to plant over 1,000,000 vegetable gardens, providing more than 20 kinds of vegetables that are rich in vitamins and minerals often missing in people’s diets.