Companies entice farmers to grow on their behalf to tame seed shortage

As demand for Kenya’s traditional vegetables like Amaranth and African night shade hits unprecedented highs, buoyed by a health conscious middle class, companies are courting farmers to grow the seeds on their behalf. The venture, has delivered a win win situation for both farmers and the seed companies with farmers finding a ready market that guarantees them of stable market prices.

One such company involved with the farmers is the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) funded by Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA. According to studies indigenous vegetables now account for some 30 percent of all the vegetables marketed in Kenya, with the percentage growing due to their high nutritional value.

Food experts say indigenous vegetables contribute to micronutrient consumption in a way that exotic vegetables do not, estimating that for poorer households, half of pro-vitamin A and one third of iron requirements are now being met by indigenous vegetables, which also contain non nutrient substances called phytochemicals, which help protect people against non-communicable diseases.

In an effort to spur production, which was being hampered by limited seed supplies, CABI initially partnered with the Kenya Seed Company to train farmers that the company had contracted to grow indigenous seeds for them. It trained the farmers in farm management, minimal pesticide use, harvesting, seed extraction and in finding marketing channels for their seeds. Farmers also received specific training in seed multiplication, after being supplied with foundation seed, which they then multiplied under the supervision of extension workers.

The trained farmers recorded a 60 per cent to 70 per cent increase in yields after the initial training, prompting moves to extend the program further. Farmers in Nyanza and Western provinces had grouped themselves to produce traditional vegetable seed to meet local demand, but poor handling of the seeds meant the output wasn’t impressive, which provided a good entry point for CABI.“We found out that farmers were selling the seeds informally to other farmers and once the seeds were planted since they were of low quality, the output would also be disappointing.

The passion that the farmers had portrayed in seed production gave us an impetus to helping them produce seeds that met the recommended standards,” said Dr. Daniel Karanja, a scientist with CABI involved in the seed production project. CABI linked with the Technology Adoption through Research Organisation, TATRO, a community based organization that had identified a market for their indigenous vegetables, but needed seeds that would produce high-yield, disease-free varieties.

In collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), KEPHIS and the Arusha-based World Vegetable Centre, which supplied farmers with foundation seed, CABI ran demonstrations across 11 districts in Nyanza and Western Kenya, teaching farmers best practices in seed handling, controlling weeds and pests and packaging.
The farmers now sell their seeds to the Lagrotech Seed Company, which has been approved to package the seeds for sale. However, they hope to one day package their own seeds.

The hold-up is “because we first need to know that the seeds produced are not in anyway susceptible to diseases and pests, which is why farmers have to be given the go ahead to be seed suppliers by Kephis,” says Dr. Karanja.
For a farmer to be a seed supplier, officials from KEPHIS have to test the foundation seed to check it is from a known and accredited source.

The foundation seed is used to multiply other seeds for farming. KEPHIS then visits the farm where the seed will be grown.
This is to check the land history and ensure that no similar crops have been planted in the farm previously, which raises chances of the new seeds getting diseases. KEPHIS also visits farms to inspect the crop before and after the flowering stages, to monitor the growth of the crop and identify any undesired growth in the crop.

Yet the investment in this meticulous seed production technique has been rewarding for farmers in the TATRO group, with crop growers now demanding more seeds due to spiraling demand for the indigenous vegetables from hospitals and schools. The programme has even seen some farmers rethink their farming strategies, such as Mrs Orone, a widow at Bungoma County, who substituted her maize farming for the AIV seeds on her one acre of land, with impressive results.

She is now among the largest seed suppliers in the area, and has managed to invest in building a decent household for her family and is educating two of her grandchildren at the prestigious Alliance High School. “These are farmers who have stuck to the meticulous details of what we have trained them. They know when to check their crops for any signs of an infection, and how to manage the seeds after harvesting. In other words, they have never followed shortcuts.

They know to get better yields they need to invest their time and resources, and we are glad it has paid off for them,” said Dr. Karanja.