The Agriculture ministry has moved to promote commercial production of cassava in maize and wheat growing areas as army worms and erratic weather cut production of the two staple food crops.
Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett said the ministry has partnered with Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, to distribute improved cassava tuber varieties to smallholder farmers through a community-based seed system.
“With climatic change as an emerging phenomenon and its consequences, root and tuber crops offer choices and opportunities as they exhibit higher tolerance threshold to a variety of stresses such as water and heat, water salinity and emergence of new pests,” said Mr Bett.
Maize and wheat production has consistently fallen below domestic demand, exposing the country to the volatile export market.
Kenya is grappling with maize flour shortage after the 2016/17 production failed to meet the high consumption rate of one bag per person per year (40 million 90kg bags).
Army worms, the pest which can cut annual production by 50 per cent, have invaded maize fields making an already bad situation worse.
Bulk wheat also dominates Kenya’s weekly imports as the country produces barely one third of its 900,000-tonne annual consumption.
Cassava is largely grown in western Kenya for subsistence use. Yesterday Mr Bett launched a €6.5 million (Sh771.42 million) cassava farming project targeting 28,000 small-scale farmers in Kisumu, Homa Bay, Migori, Siaya, Busia, Kitui and Kilifi counties.
The government sees the drought-resistant crop as an alternative to maize and wheat.
Mr Bett said cassava can help stabilise the country’s food security, citing Uganda and Nigeria where the shift has been successful.
The five-year project is funded by the European Union (EU) under the Strengthening the Competitiveness of the Cassava Value Chain in Kenya programme.
It is being implemented through Self Help Africa, a local-based Irish NGO, and seeks to nearly triple subsistence cassava production to seven million tonnes from the present 2.5 tonnes per acre.
The target for semi-commercial is to double production from five to 10 tonnes per acre.
“We see a real opportunity for cassava farmers not only because they will increase production for household cooking, but because this project will help meet the growing demand for cassava products in the industrial food, beverage, livestock feed, and textile sectors,” said EU head of rural development and food security Klaus Gautsch .
Micro-lender Rafiki Microfinance Bank, a partner in the project, said it has a Sh50 million loan facility for cassava farmers with interest charges from eight per cent.
“We have been doing some work with cassava farmers through aggregators because they don’t have security and what we have been looking at is cash flow security,” Rafiki MD Ken Obimbo said.