The arid Kerio Valley in Elgeyo Marakwet County is known for pastoralism. However, this source of livelihood has over the years proved unreliable, unsustainable and even dangerous due to rampant cases of banditry.
However, with calm gradually returning in the region, farmers are now shifting to sorghum farming in a bid to boost their economic livelihoods. Farmers says they are shifting from pastoralism to sorghum as a way of warding of bandits who are after livestock.
Daniel Suter, 33, and his 65-year-old mother Jenifer Talaa of Kabetwa in Tot, Marakwet East Sub-County are among the farmers who have ventured into sorghum farming. They consider the investment to be less riskier than pastoralism that exposes them to recurrent attacks that have turned the region into “a valley of death”.
“My grandparents had both cattle and large tracts of sorghum. I also became a sorghum farmer. Unfortunately, I stopped in 2015 when there were rampant banditry attack. But now that there is peace, I have embarked on it again,” says Ms Talaa.
Farmers in the area plant the traditional sorghum which is said to contain a lot of nutrients and is medicinal.
“In our area, we don’t need fertiliser for crops. This sorghum is the old variety that’s good for health. We sell it locally but we hope that the Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL) will provide us with lucrative market,” explains Ms Talaa.
When Enterprise toured the area, we found many farmers toiling in their farms with others already harvesting their produce.
“Unlike maize which we have to wait for more than nine months to be ready for harvesting, sorghum only takes 63 days to mature,” says Mary Chepkeres, another farmer from Lawan area at Barwessa in the neighbouring Baringo County which has also been borne the brunt of insecurity.
“It can also do well in areas with unreliable rainfall unlike maize which sometimes wither during dry spell,”
Ms Chekeres’ five-acre farm is already under sorghum. The mother of six expects to harvest more than 50 bags this season.
The major challenge for the more than 100 farmers is the lack of a ready market. However this could soon be addressed as the KBL has expressed interest in their produce. The brewer’s representatives are expected to tour the area to reach into a formal agreement with the farmers.
“With sorghum, we are assured of a steady income throughout the year as we can plant three times a year. Our people should be encouraged to venture into it and hunger which has ravaged them over the years will be a thing of the past,” says Moses Kwonyike, a resident.
Mr Kwonyike who has also planted sorghum in his five-acre piece of land approached the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) which provided the farmers with fast maturing gadam variety sorghum seeds.
The KBL is expected to pay farmers at least Sh50 per kilo of their produce.
According to Baringo County Governor Stanley Kiptis, plans are underway for the county government to put more than 10,000 acres of dry land in Kerio Valley under irrigation.
“This will not only boost food production in the area but will also create jobs for our thousands of jobless youth,” Mr Kiptis tells Enterprise.
There is a plan, he notes to expand Perkerra, Eldume and Barwessa irrigation schemes to enhance food production.
Some of the sorghum farmers are shifting to the fast maturing gadam variety grown in most eastern parts of Kenya.
The availability of certified seeds and ready market has seen acreage under sorghum cultivation in Rift Valley increase from 9,960 hectares to 13,677 hectares while the production has improved from 18,740 to 146,180 bags in the last two years.
“Sorghum production in the region has increased by 37.3 percent while the production has gone up by 34.4 percent as a result of promotion as orphan crop and distribution of certified seeds under relief programme,” states an annual agricultural crop production report.
According to the report, the region targets to produce 316,886 bags of sorghum annually while the acreage under cultivation is to increase to over 24,000 hectares as more farmers shift to cultivation of orphan crops.
The farmers are calling on the government to help them in securing markets and in provision of extension services to increase high yields.
Water shortages, especially during a dry spell and disease outbreaks such as weevils, are some of the challenges growers in Kerio Valley.
The farmers have developed a unique system of furrows on the steep escarpments to provide water for irrigation, human and animal consumption in an area where water is scarce.
The furrows, which are trough-shaped and made from stones and timbers, are managed by the various clans who own and depend on it.