​Drought-resistant seeds improve crop yields for Kenya’s subsistence farmers

Growers are switching to smart seeds to boost maize and bean production in semiarid regions.

Angelina Mwangangi (52) is digging on her farm in the late afternoon, on a slope overlooking Iveti Hill in Machakos County, southeast of Nairobi. She has carved out terraces to prevent erosion when the rains come.

Since the harvest in August, farmers in Mathitu village have been preparing their land for planting in time for the short rainy season in mid-October. But unlike in the past, when low rainfall resulted in poor or no harvests, Mwangangi is confident of a bumper crop this season.

Since 2014, she has been planting drought-resistant seeds that can thrive even with the minimal amount of rain this area typically receives.

Mwangangi has three-quarters of an acre of land and plants maize, cowpeas and beans mostly for her family’s subsistence needs.

After harvesting her first drought-resistant crops, she prepared a meal traditionally eaten by the Kamba people called muthokoi, a mixture of maize, cowpeas and beans.

“The whole family liked it – they realised it was different from the muthokoi made from Nduma maize, which we used to plant before,” said the mother of four.

Since then, she has switched entirely to drought-resistant varieties of maize, cowpeas and beans.

Despite poor rainfall, Mwangangi harvested 16 bags of maize last year from half an acre, twice as much as before.

Mwangangi sells part of her maize harvest to a local secondary school, which pays a decent price, and uses the proceeds to pay school fees for her children, among other expenses.

“I just sold 10 bags to the school at 3 000 shillings [$29.65] a bag and made a good amount of money,” she said.

Mwangangi was introduced to the drought-resistant seeds by Domitila Nduku, a farmers’ network co-ordinator for Farm Input Promotions Africa, a Kenyan nonprofit organisation.

Nduku works with village advisers in the Masii sub-county to give farmers access to high-quality seeds and fertiliser, and to develop their skills in planting, harvesting and marketing crops.

In neighbouring Kalie village, Nduku works with Mary Kalondu, a village adviser who helps her reach local farmers.

Two hundred farmers in Kalie and the surrounding villages now plant the drought-resistant variety of maize Nduku introduced them to. She organises regular field days to teach farmers about good practices and the best inputs for better yields.

Seed manufacturers and other farm input businesses use Nduku’s networks to sell their products to farmers. Nduku stocks seeds from Dryland Seed, which is based in Machakos and focuses on “climate smart” varieties.

Apart from higher yields, the company’s seeds also cost less than other varieties.

“Many farmers have called me, and others have come here asking when we will have the seeds,” said Kalondu in Kalie village. “They ask for mainly maize and beans.”

Nduku said she was waiting for a consignment from Dryland Seed, which would be delivered to the village advisers who then distribute the seeds to farmers.

The advisers sell seeds from their homes, making it easier for farmers who used to have to travel to towns such as Masii or Machakos to buy supplies.

Dryland Seed managing director Ngila Kimotho said that when the company started about 10 years ago, it focused on drought-resistant varieties of staple crops including maize, beans and cowpeas.

“We then widened the range of products and brought in pigeon peas, green gram [mung bean], sorghum and last year we went into vegetables,” he said.

Demand for drought-resistant seed varieties has increased owing to the erratic timing and low levels of rainfall in the country’s eastern region, which is made up of arid and semiarid land.

Dryland Seed sold just five tonnes of seed in 2006, but expects to sell 1 000 tonnes in 2016, said Kimotho.

The company supplies most parts of Kenya’s eastern and western regions, as well as the Rift Valley. Kimotho is confident that, with increased awareness, most farmers will adopt drought-resistant seeds.

In Mathitu village, Mwangangi awaits both the rain and the seeds in order to plant this month. She has leased an additional quarter of an acre and will have to buy more seeds this time round.

“It is because I had a good yield that I decided to expand the farm,” she said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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