In a tiny village known as Miwani of Machakos County within the usually drought stricken Eastern Kenya, Beatrice Mueni Mutisya surveys her five hectare piece of land under maize with high anticipations of a bumper harvest in the next two months.
The succulent healthy crops on the farm are enough to deceive any foreign agricultural investor to pay a premium price for the piece of land without knowing that the entire region is totally semi arid.
“I have always planted maize whenever it rains – probably once in two or three years. But not at any one time have I seen such healthy non-hybridised maize crops on my farm or anywhere else in the neighbourhood,” says Mutisya.
However, the 63 year old mother of six can easily tell where her success is coming from. She attributes it to the type of seed she and others in the neighbourhood planted at the onset of the elusive rainy season.
As a way of supporting smallholder farmers to adapt to drought conditions and the climate change, research scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) have spent close to 10 years developing a maize seed varieties that yield well with minimum soil moisture.
The project known as Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) and implemented by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) also trains the farmers on pure seed production and processing using locally available resources within local conditions.
“When this seed was introduced last year, I was sceptical to take it up, because I have always thought that only hybrid seeds can give good yield. But I pinched my nose when I saw how well it was performing on one of smallholder farmer’s plots in the neighbourhood. That is why I had to try it out this season,” said Mutisya referring to the particular maize variety already growing on her plot.
During the same period (last year), the former primary school teacher had planted a hybrid variety, which later dried up before maturity because the rainfall was not enough to sustain growth of the crop.
But all farmers who planted the non-hybridised seed also known as Kenya Dry-land Variety (KDV) harvested some grains.
KDV is a non-hybridised drought tolerant maize variety developed, trialled and multiplied particularly within the Kenya’s Eastern Province, and is being adopted by people within the same region.
“For the period we have been trialling and developing this variety in this region, there is clear evidence that it is fully accustomed to the dry-land climatic conditions, especially within the Eastern Kenya’s ecological zone,” said Dr George Birigwa, the Senior Programme Officer – PASS program.
“It is a fact that a suitable seed is one of the main determining factors for a good harvest. Yet that is what our project is trying to achieve. After developing seeds, we also strive to make them easily available to smallholder farmers through village agro-dealers,” said Dr Birigwa.
For many years, farmers like Mutisya depended on seeds produced by multinational seed companies. However, due to business reasons, nearly all the multinational seed companies – especially those who produce maize seeds insist on selling only hybridised seeds. This according to analysts is because the hybrid maize seed cannot be regenerated – meaning that the farmer must keep buying the seed every new season – thus giving more profit to seed producers.
However, the AGRA through the PASS program employs a different strategy; it starts with training a new generation of plant breeders and seed experts on quality seed production, where 170 experts from 13 countries have already been sponsored to a masters degrees level, and 80 to a PhD level. In the same period of five years, 13,000 agro-dealers have been trained so as to make the seed easily available to the end users.
Immediately the improved seed variety is developed and trialled, the program then supports development of local seed companies through grants for seed processing and multiplication.
This practical approach has proven helpful in production of seeds that adapt well to the prevailing climatic conditions.
“We are concentrating on seed varieties of the most important African crops including maize, sorghum, millet, legumes among others,” said Dr Birigwa. During the development, the scientists search for desired traits such as higher yielding varieties, drought tolerance and disease resistance.
Once the seeds have been processed and packaged, they are then marketed through agro-dealers at the village level.
So far, the scientists have released three KDV varieties, with the latest being KDV4 which was released to farmers in 2011.
“Apart from maize seed, we have released a total of 312 seed varieties of different crops since the year 2007. Among these, 182 varieties are customised to particular climatic conditions – meaning they are being planted particularly in areas where they were developed and trialled from,” said Dr Birigwa.