When it struck in 2011, Caroline Samoei, a farmer in Narok, thought that the deadly maize disease would be a short-lived outbreak easily contained using pesticides.
Five years later, the maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease continues to wreak havoc, subjecting Mrs Samoei and other growers to unimaginable losses.
In 2013, Mrs Samoei managed to get half a bag of maize from an acre of the crop. Last year, six acres under the grain were damaged by the disease.
“When the disease first occurred, we thought this would be a short term thing that could be treated but that has not been the case, to date. We are still incurring losses from MLN,” she said.
The farmer represents thousands of growers who have suffered similar losses over the years.
Last year alone, farmers incurred losses of Sh4.1 billion as the disease wiped out crops across the country, putting Kenya’s food security at risk.
The disease that started in the South Rift has spread to other major grain belts of Uasin Gishu, Trans-Nzoia and Nandi counties.
MLN has also spread beyond the borders to Tanzania and Uganda, posing a major food security threat in the east African region.
Kenya depends on formal and informal imports of maize from Uganda and Tanzania to meets its deficit as the annual maize production is not enough to meet the country’s needs.
Stephen Mugo, a scientist with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) says it will take time before seed breeders can create a variety that can withstand the virus.
“We are working within a timeframe of five years to come up with tolerant seed to stop the spread of this disease,” said Mr Mugo.
Scientists currently recommend several measures to curb the transmission of the virus which is spread over long distances by insects, especially under windy conditions.
Crop rotation and diversification into other crops are some of the solutions being proposed to reduce the pain of MLN but farmers are reluctant to change, arguing that other crops are not as lucrative as maize.
Crop rotation, argues Mr Mugo, helps to break the virus in the soil as the disease is mostly rampant in maize plantations.
The Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation in conjunction with the CIMMYT have established an MLN-screening facility at a cost of $4.5 million (Sh433 million) in Naivasha that researchers are using to develop tolerant seeds.
The facility is the largest in East Africa and will also be used by other regional countries.
The disease was first diagnosed in the US in 1976 but the country managed to contain the spread of the virus after farmers embraced crop rotation.
CIMMYT President Boddupalli Prasanna said the disease poses a big challenge even to scientists who have been working around the clock to come up with a lasting solution.
Dr Prasanna pointed out that CYMMYT-derived MLN-resistant second generation seeds are in the pipeline and that they will be released to East African states soon.
In 2013, the disease affected more than 26,000 hectares of maize valued at Sh2 billion.
Last week, an international conference on maize organised by CIMMYT, the Alliance for Green Revolution (Agra) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was held in Nairobi to specifically find solutions to the MLN menace.
Agra President Agnes Kalibata said the effects of MLN could no longer be ignored as it had caused massive losses to both farmers and seed manufactures.
“The maize lethal necrosis disease has caused losses worth millions of dollars for farmers and seed companies in the affected regions in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Dr Kalibata.
“Maize is both a food and cash crop and the effects of MLN also affect food consumers since farmers have no maize crop to release to the market. This therefore calls for urgent need to find a sustainable and widely applicable solution.”
Agriculture principal secretary Sicily Kariuki noted that there was a significant drop in maize yields since the disease was reported and that the shortfall has a serious ramifications on the national strategic grain reserve.
The disease, which is caused by a combination of two viruses, is mainly transmitted through seeds. Many farmers who do not have access to certified seed normally use seeds from previous crops that may be diseased.
Tegemeo Institute, a research wing of the Egerton University, notes in a report that most smallholder farmers lack access to the improved seeds needed to increase yields.
“Lack of availability or low adoption of improved seed varieties are still some of the greatest barriers to achieving food security and poverty reduction in most sub-Saharan African countries,” reads the report.
The report says that even as policy makers increase investments in technology generation, the uptake of already available technologies (such as seed varieties) is still low, particularly among smallholder farmers.
“Even as the industry tackles the long enduring challenge of how to increase farmers’ use of improved varieties, there is another challenge of how to speed up adoption of new varieties among the smallholder farmers, so that benefits are felt immediately an improved technology becomes available for use.”
For now, farmers are pegging their hopes on researchers to come up with the improved seed varieties to contain the menace.
Maize remains a major staple in Kenya with most households relying on it as not only a major source of food but also as an income generator.
The shortage of the produce in the country currently has seen the price of a two-kilogramme packet of flour increase beyond Sh100, putting pressure on shoppers’ pockets.
Millers argue that the high cost of maize has pushed up the ex-factory price of flour from between Sh84 and Sh87 in February to Sh95 and Sh100 this month, representing a 13 per cent increase.
Maize prices have a big effect on inflation because it is the country’s staple food and accounts for a significant share of poor households’ budgets.
Inflation last month rose way above government target for the year, pushed up by rising prices of key food items, according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).
Data from the KNBS shows that inflation rose to 7.08 per cent from 6.31 per cent in March.
The cost of living measure has increased for three months in a row since February when it bucked a five-month declining trend.
The government is banking on the one million- acre Galana-Kulalu irrigation project that is expected to cut reliance on rain-fed agriculture by employing technology to cut the cost of food production. The latter system is blamed for perennial food shortages.
The Sh260 billion Galana project is a public-private partnership in which the government will provide infrastructural services while investors are expected to plant crops and set up processing plants.