Deep in Makueni County’s Kiboko Crops Research Station, bird chasers whistle and run after destructive quelea birds that are ever eager to devour sorghums and millets.
Kiboko is Kenya’s top research facility for arid and rangeland crops.
Different varieties of sorghum, millet and pigeon peas being bred by researchers have been planted in neat rows on tiny plots stretching over 100 acres. Soon, some of them will be selected by seed companies for commercialisation and distribution to farmers.
Before urbanisation dramatically disrupted local dietary preferences, sorghum and millet were daily staples. But maize, wheat and rice among other ‘new cereals’ which were foreign to local dining tables quickly became the staple for the urban masses.
Seeing no demand and viable market for indigenous food crops, commercial seed companies shifted attention to what was selling. Without a proper system to provide seeds for the prevailing conditions like in the maize sector, sorghum, millet and dozens of other traditional crops began fizzling out. Only a few smallholder rural farmers grew them from recycled seeds.
Scientists estimate that sorghum and millet acreage within the East African region decreased by 30 percent between 1993 and 2016.
But as a high potential farming areas record dwindling yields due to climate change while urbanisation is reducing crop acreages, marginal areas are the new food baskets.
Besides the dynamics, shifting feeding habits that are turning consumers towards low calorie foods are suddenly raising demand for traditional food crops that had been forgotten for decades.
Today, a packet of sorghum or millet flour costs more in the supermarket compared to that of maize or wheat flour.
In 2018, the government came up with a policy compelling millers to fortify maize flour with other grains such as sorghum and millet for enhanced nutrition. New emerging markets such as malt and animal feed industries are also driving the demand further.
Because climate change is increasingly disrupting rainfall patterns and crop systems, farmers will need new climate- smart seeds to meet rising demand for sorghum and millet.
Elsewhere, the African Orphan Crops Consortium which aims to obtain complete sequences of DNA of 101 neglected food crops, and the African Plant Breeding Academy which empowers crop breeders from across Africa through skill development and information-sharing, are working to improve these crops and promote their utilisation.
Scientists at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) who are researching on sorghum, pearl and finger millets at Kiboko say they have developed several hybrid varieties.
Apart from being high-yielding, nutritious and climate smart, researchers have included other attributes, particularly for finger millet to make its harvesting less laborious.
Last week, ICRISAT organised a field day for regional seed companies at the Kiboko research station to allow the companies select seeds.
Dr Erick Manyasa, a lead crop breeder at ICRISAT, said a few years ago, they formed a consortium with leading seed companies from eastern and southern Africa to enhance the distribution and availability of hybrid seeds for traditional crops to farmers across the region.
ICRISAT conducts research on a number of dryland crops namely sorghum, millet, pigeon peas, groundnuts and chickpea.
“Once breeders develop new seeds they are mostly left lying in the shelves instead of getting to farmers who need of them. This is why we are inviting seed companies to commercialise and distribute them to farmers,” said Dr Manyasa.
He said they borrowed the idea from India where a similar system has successfully been used to popularise neglected yet drought- tolerant and nutritious crops.
The scientists said they are also working with farmers to expose them to the new seed varieties.
“People in urban areas who have understood the value of these crops now consume them much more than the rural folk who produce them,” noted Dr Manyasa.
“Our new sorghum varieties have high iron, zinc and calcium content which help curb malnutrition. There is a great misnomer among Kenyans who believe that maize is the only food, I urge farmers to try out sorghum,” he added.
More than eight seed companies from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan and Egypt who attended the event showed interest in the improved crop varieties.
Increasing demand for sorghum in the brewing, animal feed and food sectors also prompted the development of a hybrid variety that produces up to 40 per cent more than the traditional breed.
Unlike many crops, sorghum can grow in three agro-ecologies namely the dry low lands in eastern Kenya, the sub-humid areas around the Lake Victoria region and the cool highlands in the north rift and central regions of Kenya.
Stacy Mwangala, the Deputy Chief of Party at Partnerships for Seed Technology Transfer in Africa (PASTTA) in Syngenta Foundation said they are working to bridge the gap between the farmers and the new breeds.
Ms Mwangala noted that they are conducting awareness campaigns and field demonstrations on the crops to popularise them among local farmers.
She added that they are working with partners to assist farmers diversify for improved nutrition and promoting value choice.
“We are targeting the brewing industries to widen the market for farmers growing millet. This new breed is very authentic and good but we have observed a challenge as farmers do not get them easily in the market, something that we are working to change,” she said.
Dr Henry Ojulong’, Senior Scientist and pearl millet breeder at ICRISAT says the hybrid pearl millet varieties produces 70 percent higher yields compared to their conventional counterparts.
“Millet farming in the country is mainly done in the eastern and northern regions due to its ability to do well in arid and semi-arid areas. Being one of the oldest traditional crops, it lacks a seed system prompting the developers to come up with the parent breeds,” said Dr Ojulong’.
The millet matures within 45 days.
While attacks by birds such as quelea poses a big threat to the success of the crops, the researchers advised farmers to grow them as a community.
ICRISAT’s Chief Gender Scientist, Esther Njuguna says the development of a snappy finger millet variety is a major milestone for smallholder women farmers who have been left to carry out the laborious harvesting by themselves.
The snappy trait gives the finger millet a bristle stem allowing farmers to harvest it just by twisting the crop at the neck,
“For a long time, it has been the women carrying out this hard labour as it is common in the African culture where women and children are left to do the weeding and harvesting jobs. With this new snapping breed, we look forward to see more men engaging in finger millet harvesting,” Dr Njuguna said.