In eastern Kenya, traditional seeds beat drought and poverty


Finger millet. PHOTO | FILE

In drought-striken Tharaka-Nithi, eastern Kenya, old beehives hang on Baobao trees. But most have no bees as they abandoned the hives for lack of flowers.

Rebecca Karegi, a resident of Karungaru village said crop failure has chased the bees to other villages that have flowers.

With perennial droughts, the small-scale farmers have found alternatives to beat climate change and fight hunger. A group of women conserve indigenous seeds — grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits— which are loaned out or sold to farmers during planting seasons.

The community-based seed producers are providing an alternative to the escalating costs of hybrid seeds which they say have contributed to low yields as they are prone to pests and diseases.

Members of Marimanti Bee Women Group keep maize, cowpeas, peas, green grams, millet and sorghum in a bank.

“We were trained by Ridep (Rural Initiative Development Programme) to preserve traditional food crops. We got the seeds from the elderly people who had preserved them,’’ said Lucy Mukima, who is the group’s chairperson.

The farmer said that out of her three acre farm on which she practices mixed farming, she now produces enough to sell and feed her family unlike in previous years when she harvested almost nothing due to lack of rainfall.

“With millet, peas, maize and green grams in my house, I cannot go hungry. We no longer need relief food when the rains fail,” said Ms Mukima. The women’s group also collects cash which it loans out to members.

“I can now afford to pay school fees. I bought a solar panel and my children can read comfortably at night. I also bought two bulls from the proceeds of green grams,” she said.

The women participate in traditional seed and fairs where they showcase their indigenous produce and encourage small-scale farmers to grow crops that are resilient to the changing climatic conditions.

To ensure circulation of the indigenous seed varieties, they have developed a seed loan system.

“If a member receives a kilogramme of seeds, she is expected to return two kilogrammes after harvest. This ensures that we do not run out of seeds. We have about eight indigenous varieties of cowpeas, two varieties of millet and two varieties of sorghum,” Ms Mukima.

Ridep programme coordinator Nicholas Kimathi said use of indigenous seeds and tree planting has improved livelihoods.

Mr Kimathi said the farmers have also learned how to reclaim eroded farms and are using the Zai pit technology to preserve water.

Zai is a traditional land rehabilitation technology that was used by farmers in Burkina Faso to rehabilitate degraded dry lands and to restore soil fertility.

“Small pits measuring 20-30cm in diameter and 10-20cm deep are dug into degraded soils. At the bottom of the pits, farmers place about two handfuls of manure. Seeds are planted in these pits as soon as the rainfall starts,” he said.

“The farmers are now using Zai pits in their farms, reducing losses when the rains fail.’’ Indigenous seeds have crucial genetic compositions which are resistant to heat, drought, salinity, pests and diseases, researchers say.

Food and Agriculture Organisation noted that by 2050, the world will need to produce twice as much food as was produced in 2000, hence the need for genetically-sound seeds.

“The genetic diversity of the grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits that we grow and eat, referred as Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA), are the foundation of food production, and the biological basis for food security, livelihoods and economic development,’’ FAO noted.

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) recommends the promotion of community seed shows and seed banks.

Only one per cent of maize harvested, about 202,086 bags, is retained as seed, according Agriculture ministry data.