Ideas & Debate

Sorghum can transform farming in semi-arid areas


In Kenya, sorghum is grown in areas that are characterised by low rainfall and high temperatures. FILE PHOTO | NMG

For many years, sorghum has been a popular food choice in the semi-arid regions of Africa. In Eastern Africa, the crop forms an integral part of diets for people in Ethiopia, Southern Sudan, Northern Kenya and Uganda. The fact that it is a drought-tolerant crop underscores its importance as a good source of food for hundreds of families.

But despite this promise, cultivation of sorghum lags behind other cereals such as maize, wheat and rice in terms of productivity and consumption.

Here in Kenya, sorghum is grown in the Western, Lower Eastern and Coastal regions, areas which are characterised by low rainfall and high temperatures.

Majority of the sorghum growers are small-scale farmers, having less than two acres of land under the crop. It is estimated that about 240,000 smallscale farmers cultivate sorghum, with farm sizes ranging from 0.4 to 0.6 Ha (1 to 1.5 acres). These farmers produce sorghum under the mixed farming system, intercropping it with other crops such as maize, cowpeas, beans and pigeon peas. The majority also grow it for domestic consumption as opposed to producing for the market.

A recent study undertaken by Tegemeo Institute on sorghum production in the country shows that the trends in sorghum productivity have stagnated since the early 2000s. However, between 2011 and 2016, yields started to increase. According to the study, the increase can be attributed to increased utilisation of sorghum for industrial purposes.

The East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL) currently leads the drive for sorghum commercialisation in Kenya and supports farmers to produce efficiently through contractual arrangements, where farmers are supplied with improved seed varieties and fertiliser. Ordinarily, farmers were constrained in access to these critical inputs due to lack of information, poor distribution of inputs especially improved seed, and high cost of inputs. Secondly, the contract provides farmers with a ready market enabling farmers to concentrate on enhancing yields to maximise profits.

Through the sorghum out-growers programme, the company has created employment for over 45,000 farmers drawn from Kisumu, Migori, Siaya, Homabay, Busia, Tharaka Nithi and Meru.

An estimated 80 percent of EABL’s raw material is now locally sourced, a milestone that has been achieved through strategic partnerships throughout the value chain, a ‘Growing Value Together’ programme designed to ensure the business shares economic benefits with local communities by improving livelihoods.

The government, through the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, has also supported sorghum production on a commercial scale. This support is part of the broader strategy to transform agriculture from a subsistence to a modern, innovative and commercially oriented economic activity. Key initiatives include policy support and partnerships in research and development.

EABL’s consumption of an estimated 60,000 tonnes of sorghum annually, which is expected to rise with a projected increase in sorghum beer production and consumption, presents a tremendous market opportunity for farmers and other value chain actors such as input dealers, traders, processors, retailers.

However, the government, both national and county, and the private sector should do more to help farmers take advantage of the many opportunities.

First, national and county government through the respective ministries of agriculture must strengthen extension systems. Extension systems are essential in providing farmers with knowledge and information for improving farm productivity. Enhancing extension services is also vital in overcoming challenges such as the prevalence of pests and diseases, poor crop husbandry, declining soil quality, and effects of climate change.

Second, increased investment in research on improved sorghum varieties and strengthening linkages between research and extension is required.

Contract farming flourishes where there is respect for agreements made and enforcement mechanisms are in place to protect both producers and processors alike. Therefore, the public sector should supply these public goods to build on the investments made by the private sector.

EABL has demonstrated that contracted farmers, provided with farm inputs credit and information, can respond by increasing productivity and supply high-quality products to the company at a pre-agreed price.

Both the public and private sectors are essential in raising farm-level productivity. The public sector must provide the necessary public goods such as research, extension, and infrastructure development to support private sector investment in the enterprise. Public extension systems should be vibrant to provide farmers with the necessary information and knowledge for sorghum production.

The government should facilitate easier access to input and output markets, pursue policies that make credit services available to resource-constrained farmers and enhance market participation by smallholder sorghum farmers. The government must also offer supportive policies and strategies to provide a conducive environment for the growth of the enterprise, especially at the county level.

An enabling environment that supports the participation of these and other marginalised groups, such as women and youth, in sorghum production and service delivery to the enterprise could be crucial in unlocking the potential of sorghum in Kenya.
The writer is Research Fellow at Tegemeo Institute.