Agricultural organisations are flagging soybeans as a crop with huge growth potential, alongside projects now delivering higher soybean yields and drawing smallholders into soybean processing in a double drive that is upping earnings by up to 15-fold.
Concentrated around a soybean project in Mumias, Western Kenya, the new soybean models have already tripled the incomes of more than 3,000 farmers in the region, and could equally be applied to the more than 30,000 smallholders now growing the crop across Kenya, say agricultural experts.
According to a National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) report, in the last five years, soybean cultivation in Africa has grown at five per cent a year, while production has risen by seven per cent a year.
But Africa still only accounts for 0.6 per cent of the world’s total production, despite now growing the crop on a total 1.5 million hectares of land.
In efforts to raise returns from the crop, the Mumias Soybean Project is part of a bigger Sub Saharan Africa initiative being administered locally by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), and hinging on its recent release of new superior Soya varieties.
The varieties are drought and disease tolerant and yield 750kg to 1200kg per hectare compared with previous norms as low as 200kg a hectare.
The new varieties also have “good leaf biomass,” said Dr Jendeka Mahasi of KARI, which makes them suitable as high-protein livestock feed and also for use to create bio energy.
The varieties mature in 90 to 135 days, and on harvesting the clustered farmers in Mumias are selling their produce to their local market and to local processor, Mumias Soybean Federation, which is paying them Sh50 a kilo, compared with around Sh25 when they were selling to individuals and brokers.
The farmers are also engaging in home based value addition through their association the Soybean Farmers Association, making Soybean flour, Soy nuts, fortified flours for porridge like Soybean Finger millet flour, Soybean Sorghum flour, Soya beverage, Soya milk and Soya crunchies.
The Soya milk has a longer shelf life than milk from animals.
A kilogramme of some of these products is selling for as much as Sh200 which translates to extra earnings of some Sh150 a kilo compared with unprocessed Soya Beans.
“Value addition is increasing the value even by 4 to 15 times,” said Dr Mahasi from her assessment.
Besides its commercial value, Soya is also rich nutritionally. Soybean has 40 per cent protein and 20 per cent oil.
As a high protein crop, it’s emerging as a crop for curbing malnutrition, particularly among women and children in Africa.
It’s also one of the legumes being fronted for use in green bio-fuel energy industry.
In the US, it has emerged as a front-running crop in the bio-fuel industry, with the Soybean Industry now estimated as worth over $2 billon dollars, according to a US Soybean Board report of 2009.
In Kenya, soya is suited to the lower and upper midlands at altitudes of 1400 to 1800 metres above sea level, and KARI is already working with farmers in Vihiga and Butere to replicate the Mumias project’s success.
Other regions in Kenya where soya grows are Mwea, Migori, Meru and Nakuru - in Rift Valley