NAROK, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For many years, it was wheat that kept Joshua Nyaruri‘s family fed and his income flowing. But lately it appears the Rift Valley favourite is being knocked off its perch by a once-snubbed crop – beans.
In the 60 years he has lived in Ole Leshua village in Narok County, Nyaruri has shared the general appreciation of wheat as one of the most valued cereals in Kenya. But over the past decade or more, the grain has been falling from favour, in part because of the unpredictable weather which experts believe is a consequence of climate change.
“When we expect rain, the dry season continues,” says the father of five. “When we need the sun to ripen the crop, continuous rains ensure the remaining grain wastes away in the farms.”
Farmers are warming instead to new crops that can withstand the three-way pressures of climate change, pests and disease, Nyaruri says, and increasingly feel that wheat farming is wasted effort.
PRESSURE ON WHEAT
Travelling along the potholed road that cuts through large tracts of agricultural land in this part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, a few farms can be seen sprouting with knee-high wheat. Very little of it has heads of grain.
Normally, “at this time of the year, most would be blooming with fresh kernels,” explains Charles Ngare, a farmer who has been growing wheat for almost three decades. “I think the slow maturity is because the rains (are) delayed.”
But at Nyaruri’s farm, about 10 km (6 miles) away, the farmer is busy threshing his recent bean harvest. He gave up on wheat farming five years ago and has no regrets about making the switch, he explains.
“I planted the beans in mid-December last year, and by early March I was harvesting,” beams Nyaruri, nodding to a section of the farm which has been freshly tilled to prepare it for the next cycle of sowing.
Flanking the tilled parcel is another covered with rows of green bean plants, the stalks struggling to support the weight of the sturdy pods dangling from them. The beans will be ready for harvest in the next six weeks, he reckons.
As he shows off his 70-acre (28-hectare) farm, Nyaruri cannot help bragging about the improved size of his harvest compared to when he grew wheat.
The farmer says that two kilograms of bean seed yielded a recent harvest of 65 kilograms of beans, and the crop took just two-and-a-half months to mature.
Had he planted wheat in December, he argues, he would still be waiting for the first harvest. The cereal usually matures after four months and needs annual rainfall of more than 860 mm.
Stray wildlife and migratory birds threaten wheat crops as well. But the new bean varieties are disliked by wildlife, according to researchers.
The beans at Nyaruri’s farm were developed by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Katumani, in collaboration with the Bio-resources Innovations Network for Eastern Africa Development (Bio-Innovate) and other partners.
The legumes mature quickly, require little rainfall to grow, and are even considered energy-savers because they cook more quickly than traditional bean varieties, according to KARI scientists.
These innovations are attracting a growing number of farmers in Kenya, and in other countries, eager to adapt to the challenges created by climate change.
David Karanja, coordinator of the green legume project at KARI-Katumani, explains that the new varieties take 30 days to flower after germination, and another 35 days to be ready for harvesting.
Traditional varieties would need 90 days to flower, and another 30 days to be ready for harvest.
Just as important, “the new varieties can have a yield of more than double per acre compared to traditional legumes,” said Karanja.
ON THE TABLE
The beans also cook faster and are richer in nutrition, factors that endear them to people like Beatrice Kirui, who lists them as a boost for her family’s diet.
The 26-year-old gently slips spoonfuls of bean porridge into the mouth of her four-month-old son as she cradles him outside her retail kiosk in Olereut village,
“I grind the beans into flour to make porridge,” says the mother of four. “I use less firewood because this type cooks faster than the traditional one.”
“The children like these new beans because they do not leave gas in their stomach,” she adds.
In her village, about 80 km (50 miles) from Nyaruri’s farm, maize, beans and wheat have traditionally been the staple food.
Kirui says declines in yields of all three staple crops are the result of increasingly erratic weather and emerging diseases, perhaps linked to temperature changes and changing weather patterns.
In the last three years, strange diseases have been affecting crops, she said. They include wheat stem rust, which experts suspect was blown by the wind into Kenya from Ethiopia.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation’s wheat database indicates that Kenya’s wheat output has been on the decline since the 1970s.
But Job Dan Sirari, who works at CLUSA Kenya, an NGO which advocates for cooperative development among small-scale farmers is hopeful that new crops may create food security for struggling farmers.
“The on-farm approaches are giving farmers an opportunity to experiment (with) the crops best suited for their farms,” he said.
Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.