Liza Thima, a 65 -year- old retiree, began farming her 15-acre land in Kirinyaga County 10 years ago after her teaching job ended. To date, she cultivates seeds that are selectively chosen from previous harvests or sourced from neighbours, an ancient practice picked from her mother.
As a result, Liza, like many farmers in the locality, has stuck to the same crops — maize and beans — year in, year out.
She has not explored new seed varieties due to a lack of knowledge about their existence and benefits, as well sheer disinterest.
“I have heard about new seeds that promise more harvests on radio but I do not know how to get them. But even if they were available I am hesitant because there are health concerns and debates about GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) technologies,” she said.
Ms Thima is one of the estimated 7.5 million smallholder farmers in Kenya who are yet to embrace improved hybrid seeds owing to lack of knowledge, poor access, outright fear of change and disinterest.
The small-scale sub sector comprises 75 per cent of the total agricultural output in Kenya.
Yet the average maize farmer in Kenya is a net buyer of the commodity. Most grow enough to sustain themselves for about nine months in a year before turning to sellers to plug the deficit. Maize is Kenya’s staple food. The country has potential to produce seven million tonnes of the cereal per year but harvests about 2.8 million tonnes.
In addition to incorrect farming practices, a major factor contributing to the deficit is farmers’ tendency to disregard the importance of new, improved seeds.
Recent advances in molecular and cellular biology has led to the development of seeds that produce higher yields and are resistant to the vagaries of pest attacks, diseases and climate change.
For example, Karembo, one of the high-yielding green gram varieties introduced by Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) last year, yields an average of two tons per hectare compared to 1.5 tons for the same size of land using traditional varieties.
Kalro also has four new bean varieties — Angaza, Metameta, Faida and Nyota — that are fast maturing and richer in nutrients.
Yet, as noted by James Wafula, a farmer who also runs an agrovet shop in Uasin Gishu County, farmers are yet to appreciate the advancements due to resilient commitment to products they are familiar with.
“We have observed a trend where farmers insist on planting varieties of seeds that they are more accustomed to, and it is quite a challenge trying to introduce them to new options even with the promise of better yields,” Mr Wafula said.
Muthoni Njagi, a farmer in Tharaka Nithi County, confirmed Mr Wafula’s assertion noting that it makes sense to use “tried and tested” seeds instead of trying to experiment with inputs she is unfamiliar with.
“For me, agriculture is a livelihood and I do not want to invest in a seed variety I have not encountered before. I would rather focus on what I know because after planting a certain type of seed for several years I know what to expect in terms of quantity and quality of harvest,” said Ms Njagi, who quit maize farming for capsicum and tomatoes.
What Ms Njagi does not know is that some new seeds have the potentially to radically improve her harvest. Kenya Seed Company’s H614D, for example, has the potential to produce 40 bags per acre, according to a maize researcher based at Egerton University.
“In comparison, it is a struggle to raise 10 bags from one acre using local seed varieties such as Nyamula,” said the researcher. Ms Njagi is one of 60 per cent of Kenya’s smallholder farmers who were receptive of hybrid seeds when they were first introduced in the country almost half a century ago, but have refused to adopt further improvements on later varieties.
“For the last five years the market has received a larger share of improved seeds especially maize than years before. The greatest challenge has been uptake. For instance, farmers are still using the H614 maize variety developed by Kalro (then known as Kari) in 1969, yet we have different varieties that are improved against challenges like pests and drought,” Kalro Principal Scientist Murenga Mwimali said.
“These improved seeds are tailored for specific areas but farmers lack the knowledge about the latest farming technologies,” he added.
In addition, Dr Mwimali said, county governments need to play an active role in ensuring that farmers are well educated on the use of modern farming methods and inputs.
“Agriculture, despite being a devolved function, is yet to be given the attention it deserves by county governments, the administrators can be blamed for the lack of information in communities regarding the new technologies and improved seeds in the market. We also need to acknowledge that the number of agriculture personnel needed to guide farmers is not adequate,” he said.
Infiltration of the market by uncertified products, sometimes supplied by unscrupulous dealers within government ranks, is another deterring factor in improved seed adoption.
“The approach by county governments to supply seeds for free has led to an emergence of ‘tenderprenuers’ who deliver products whose certification is in question,” said Nyeri County Drought Co-ordinator Kiragu Kariuki.
Investing well in the distribution of hybrid seeds would work to deter infiltration of fake varieties.
“Producers should commercialise seed distribution by setting up stocked satellite shops across the country. That way, farmers will be guaranteed that what they buy is genuine and certified,” said Mr Kariuki.
He urged farmers to buy the new varieties or to get recommendations on the right seeds from local Kalro offices.
Dr Mwimali said that there is a need to increase the visibility of new farming technologies through advertising or running programmes in various media and holding field days where industry specialists meet with farmers and producers provide improved inputs at subsidized costs.
Mr Wafula, a successful farmer, said that it would be of help for seed producers to set up model farms in various parts of the country through which local farmers can learn benefits of improved seeds and other emerging farm inputs. “It would be of great importance for seed producers to illustrate to local farmers that their products give the yields they advertise,” he told the writer during the Africa Science Desk assignment. Mr Wafula’s suggestion has already been tested in Ethiopia with impressive results.
In a bid to help farmers increase their yields, the International Food Policy Research Institute and Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency designed a project to test how a “package” intervention would help improve wheat yields.
For the trial, several farmers were selected in 73 selected experimental kebeles (neighbourhood, similar to a ward) in Oromia, Amhara and Tigray regions and given an intervention package.
The premise was that other farmers would notice healthier crops in neighbouring fields of benchmark farmers and adopt the techniques and inputs used.
The research demonstrated that the wheat intervention package could potentially increase yields, in addition to providing evidence of opportunities to further innovate.
The survey found that chemical fertilisers increased wheat output per hectare by three per cent while yield grew by 18 per cent per hectare where a larger proportion of the crop was planted.
The project confirmed that the food shortage in Ethiopia, and the rest of Africa, can be abated by encouraging farmers to embrace modern farming practices and inputs.