Why quinoa holds huge food security potential


In 2013, quinoa was declared the crop of the year globally because it is a climate-smart plant that can withstand harsh weather conditions. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

In 2013, quinoa was declared the crop of the year globally because it is a climate-smart plant that can withstand harsh weather conditions and give farmers handsome returns.

A decade later, this magic plant was introduced in Kenya by the Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO), largely for research purposes with the view to ascertaining its suitability.

Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) has now started commercialising quinoa after varieties that were tried locally proved to be viable, paving the way for the introduction of this high-value crop with unmatched returns.

Kalro’s director of research Lusike Wasilwa says FAO introduced five varieties in Embu where they recorded impressive results which have now informed the decision for expansion on a commercial scale.

“From the field trials that we conducted the variety did very well as we got between 2.8 and five tonnes of quinoa from an acre,” said Dr Wasilwa.

Quinoa is a gluten-free grain that many people use for seasoning with its popularity growing over the last couple of years, especially among rich, health-conscious Kenyans.

Dr Wasilwa said Kalro will introduce quinoa on large acreage starting this year to promote food security.

She said a single plant of quinoa can yield up to a kilogramme, giving farmers more returns.

“Some plants can yield a kilogramme up to two kilogrammes and the fact that it is drought tolerant, makes it the best bet for farmers as they will get yields throughout the year without necessarily relying on rains,” she said.

In Kenya, a kilogramme of quinoa fetches as high as Sh1,500 in supermarkets with most of the supplies coming in from South American countries.

Currently, quinoa are sold in Carrefour and Food Plus supermarkets.

A spot-check in Carrefour shows that this retail outlet sells a 250-gramme packet at Sh499. A few farmers in the country have adopted it, mainly in central Kenya where it was first tested for suitability, however, whatever is harvested is just a drop in the ocean and cannot meet the demand.

“Only a few farmers are growing it now but from this year we are targeting a large number of farmers to increase supply and cut dependence on imports,” said Dr Wasilwa.

With the current effects of climate change that have affected most crops, quinoa is a sure bet for farmers as the rain patterns become erratic.

Kenya is staring at another round of poor rains with the weatherman forecasting below-average precipitation during the main season that runs between March and May.

Quinoa is mainly harvested as grain while its nutritious stalk can be given as livestock fodder when green or dried and processed as feeds.

When green, its leaves can be eaten as vegetables as it falls in the same category as amaranth, which is popular among Kenyan households.

The crop is an immune booster as it is high in calcium and all the other essential vitamins, making it a key ingredient in fighting diseases. It also has high levels of fibre.

There are sufficient seeds currently in Kenya but Kalro is waiting for Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service to register it before it is released to farmers.

Speaking during a Kalro farmers' field day at the National Agriculture Research Laboratory Centre (NARLO), Dr Wasilwa said they are targeting to start partial commercialisation this year with the crop expected to be fully commercialised by 2025.

Esther Gikonyo, Kalro centre director said this new plant was to be commercialised in the arid West Pokot County but the plans were distracted by the General Elections.

“We were ready to launch quinoa in West Pokot and we had received donors to support the programme, but we put the plans on hold due to the election,” said Dr Gikonyo.

Quinoa is just one of the many crops that the government is pushing for adoption to address the effects of climate change, which have partly been attributed to food insecurity.

There are also efforts to increase the production of orphaned crops such as millet, sorghum and cassava, which can withstand harsh climatic conditions on the road to food security.

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