With the onset of the rains, livestock farmers around Kenya might breathe a sigh of relief. But they have come too late for the thousands of cattle that have already died, hit by the drought that led President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare a national disaster in February.
Fresh milk prices have been ramped up as a result of drought halving milk output. Areas of Kenya where milk production is usually high have been hit, especially in the highland areas of the central districts and Rift Valley.
More Turkana pastoralists have migrated to Uganda, in search of water and livestock feed, bringing the number of those who have crossed the border to 60,000 this season.
Yet this phenomenon is one which will not be solved by rain alone. It is down to a few, fundamental challenges which go deeper than drought.
Across east and southern Africa, livestock farmers routinely face the same hurdles in increasing meat and milk production: low availability of good quality livestock feed, especially during the dry season.
Our research shows that new, high-quality, drought-tolerant forage grasses could boost milk production by up to 40 per cent, generating millions of dollars in economic benefits for struggling East African dairy farmers.
Some of these new varieties of a grass called Brachiaria, are high-yielding, nutritious and, because they are easier for cows to digest, animals produce far less of the greenhouse gas methane per litre of milk produced.
These benefits make it the most extensively used tropical forage in the world, with seed production already commercialised in big cattle-producing countries like Brazil. Yet Brachiaria grass originates in Africa.
So why can’t livestock farmers in Kenya find enough forages to feed their cattle— especially the high quality varieties like Brachiaria — when in Brazil the grass supports a multi-million-dollar seed industry annually?
The reason is two-fold. First, Brachiaria only produces economically viable amounts of seed for commercial production in specific climates, with a certain amount of daylight. In Africa, though a few small enterprises are trying, there is no established industry driving wide-spread Brachiaria seed availability locally.
Currently, high-quality seeds are imported from Thailand or Brazil, for example.
At the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), we have found climates similar to those where seeds thrive in Africa. That could mean business opportunities for smallholders and seed producers on the continent.
We are starting to explore the technical and economic feasibility of commercial Brachiaria production in Zambia. Locally, available seed could be more affordable for livestock farmers, especially considering that feed constitutes at least 60 per cent of the costs involved in keeping livestock.
Tropical Forages Coordinator for Africa, The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture.