A single masters degree in agricultural engineering has been the spark that has transformed the fortunes of a community of farmers in Mukurweini by turning a near-extinct groundnut, set aside decades ago on its low yields and earning potential, into a cash-cow thanks to value addition and newly discovered anti-weed qualities.
The Bambara groundnut has been cultivated in many parts of the continent for centuries, and was once a key part in people’s diet, but was set aside by farmers and neglected by the scientific community on the development of crops that matured faster and returned greater results on limited land.
However, the success of the Mukurweini farmers has now attracted new scientific attention to the nut. The old variety, which the farmers cultivate, yields in the region of 500 kg/ha, but scientists are now devising new varieties, which they say under research conditions yield as much as 4000 kg/ha.
The growth cycle of the nut is from 90 days to 180 daysto pod maturity. Flowers appear 40–60 daysafter planting and 30 daysafter pollination the pod reaches maturity and the groundnuts develop over the next 10 days.
Yet the Mukurweini farmers now celebrating their commercial success with the nut, only embraced the crop after everything else failed. When coffee failed to live up to its promise in the 1990’s, the farmers in the area uprooted it and decided to replant the Bambara groundnut just to keep the land occupied.
“We had planted the nut before but had not had a good experience with it in the 1980’s. So we cleared it for coffee, but when the wrangles in the coffee co-operatives persisted and we no longer got our payments for the coffee we delivered, we decided to uproot the coffee and plant the nut just so as not to keep the land idle. We are glad we did,” said Alphonse Muthaka, one of the more than 400 farmers who invested in the crop.
Though they harvested the nut in large amounts, a lot went to waste with the market for the commodity still virgin. This was until two years ago when a graduate returning from the University of Georgia introduced the farmers to value addition to consolidate a market that was finally showing some interest in the nut.
Besides now supplying to the Letwa Nuts Association, which buys the nut for Sh80 a kilo, the farmers have now fully ventured into grinding the nuts into flour, which they package and sell to local hospitals, owing to its superior nutritional value compared with conventional flour.
On average, the seeds of the nuts contain 63 per cent carbohydrate, 19 per cent protein and 6.5 per cent oil with research putting the gross energy value of the Bambara groundnut as greater than that of other common pulses, such as cowpea, lentil and pigeonpea. A kilo of the Bambara nut flour in Mukurweini retails at Sh100 compared to conventional flour that goes for Sh80, but the interest in the nut flour is nonetheless on an upward trend.
The crop has also exhibited internal mechanisms that can suppress Striga species, a parasitic weed found in sandy soils and which infests 200,000 hectares of Kenya’s farmland causing crop losses worth an estimated $50m a year by reducing yields by 65 to 100 per cent.
But the farmers are also now developing other uses for the nut. “We have done research recently which has shown that the Bambara groundnut milk compared in term of flavour and composition with those of milks prepared from cowpea, pigeonpea and soybean ranks first, and while all milks are found to be acceptable, the lighter colour of the Bambara groundnut milk was preferred,” said John Doe Kuria, the graduate from Georgia University who has a Masters in Agriculture Engineering.
The farmers have also discovered that the Bambara groundnut can been used as an animal feed, due to its leaves which are known to possess high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, while the seeds have been successfully used to feed chicks.
On the back of the farmers’ success, even with such low yielding variety, scientists have now pitched tent in the area gathering samples and testing the already developed varieties to see their performance in different soils.
“Our first intervention after collecting the low yielding seeds was how we can improve the yield capacity within limited land while ensuring that the new variety can do much better in all soils and in any climate. That has been achieved, and we are trialing it with the farmers here in Mukurweini. The next step now is testing maturity of the seed and how the seeds can be multiplied. If it works, we start a nationwide publicity campaign,” said Dr Gabriel Gathekia an agricultural officer who is actively involved in the project.
The reason the nut is known to few, even with the immense benefits now being ascribed to it, is believed to be due to a lack of information to farmers.
Globally, the production of Bambara groundnut increased from 29,600 tonnesin 1961 to 90,160 tonnesin 2010, but yields during this period stagnated, in what is now being blamed on a lack of marketing channels and attention by the scientific community to a food with the potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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