They laughed at her when she decided to grow what was considered to be food for the birds, but now it is Anna Muli’s turn to laugh.
The 67-year-old resident of Waita Village in Mwingi Central in Kenya’s lower eastern region, is happy with her resolution five years ago to abandon maize farming for sorghum.
When the Business Daily went knocking at her door, she proudly welcomed the visitors with bowls of porridge made from sorghum flour, a luxury she could not afford a few years ago.
Like in other parts of Kenya’s lower eastern region, Mwingi is a fairly dry area which receives minimal rainfall throughout the year, a situation that residents say has deteriorated in the recent years and which meteorologists attribute to climate change.
This season, Ms Muli planted the gadam sorghum in just an acre of her farm, but she is optimistic that she will harvest close to five bags at the end of March.
This is her third planting season and she has nothing short of praises for gadam, the popular sorghum variety here.
“When the rainfall became irregular, most of the youth left for urban areas to look for alternative sources of livelihood and the little maize or beans planted could no longer yield enough to feed a family,” she said.
She said from the harvest last season, she was able to get enough food to last her the dry spells, and she is able to care for her grandson who just completed high school from the surplus sales.
“With gadam, you are assured of a harvest and once you grind it to flour, you can use it to cook ugali (a type of bread or maizemeal) and even bake cakes,” she adds.
She has been gradually increasing the acreage under sorghum every planting season.
Ms Muli is among the thousands of Kenyans living in arid and semi-arid areas who have adopted Drought Tolerant Crops (DTCs) to improve food security at an individual level.
The Kenyan government, through the ministry of Agriculture, aggressively embarked on the traditional high value crops programme in late 2006 to boost production and consumption of alternative cereal and non-cereal crops as well as improve food security in dry areas.
There has been increased farming of crops like millet, sorghum, cowpeas and green grams in the last two years.
In Mwingi Central, for instance, the sorghum acreage in 2006 was 6,256 hectares which improved to 14,000 hectares in 2011, up from 10,700 in 2010. The district agricultural officer, Mr James Muchoka, attributes this slow uptake to the stereotypes that the communities associate the crop with.
“Though the uptake has been improving, the pace is slow because people still dismiss sorghum as a poor man’s crop and some still prefer to grow maize even though it will fail,” he said.
Mr Muchoka said the ministry did not give any maize seed to encourage diversification, giving away only the dryland seeds. Farmers who wanted to plant maize had to buy a one kilogramme bag at Sh350.
The ministry currently runs a seed retrieval system where farmers who are given seed through the district agricultural officer are expected to bring back twice as much as they were given in order to have a grain bank for the next planting season.
Though the system creates a constant supply of seed to farmers, Mr Taylor Mburu of Africa Harvest Foundation warns that it reduces the potential yield every season.
The not-for-profit organisation has been running a sorghum project in Mwingi and other semi-arid areas in Kenya as part of their mission to transform Africa into a hunger free zone.
“We try to instil in farmers the culture of using certified seed to boost the yield, but these are quite expensive and we have to look for donors to assist in making it available to farmers,” he said.
Most of the sorghum farmers in Mwingi have clustered in groups of between 20 and 50 members who collectively store and sell surplus produce.
After harvesting the dry heads from her farm, Ms Muli takes the seeds to a nearby silo owned by the group where they are dried in the sun and stored.
“We have had several training, among them how to ensure that the seeds contain 13 per cent moisture content by the time it they are ready to grind to flour,” says Ms Muli.
Sorghum floor can be used to bake cakes and biscuits as well as make the staple ugali although the seeds can also be cooked whole.
As a result of working in groups, sorghum farmers in Mwingi have been able to benefit from selling in bulk. Their customers include millers, alcohol brewers and manufacturers of animal feed.
“The prices have not been as good as we expected, but we have enough money for ourselves and can even buy the maize and beans we did not plant,” notes Ms Muli.
Ms Maryline Gachoya, a representative of the Australian High Commission, said that if there was increased access to certified seeds, farmers throughout the continent could become food secure. “Sorghum is one of the drought tolerant crops that not only require little rainfall, but which have multiple uses ,” she said.
Numerous attempts have been made to improve the nutritional value of sorghum to better place it as an alternative to maize.
Africa Harvest is currently working on a project in West Africa to bio-fortify sorghum, which is at the trial stages.
“We have plans to make a strong variety of sorghum enriched with zinc and iron similar to the golden rice variety,” said Mr Mburu
Locally, the organisation has partnered with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) to come up with higher yielding varieties of sorghum that can be introduced to the Kenyan farmer.