Drought resistant maize seed rekindles hope in Machakos

Farmers in semi arid areas, knocked by weather patterns are learning new techniques to beat the weather vagaries like planting before the rains start and buying seeds suited for their climate. The techniques which have at times failed remain their only option at the moment.

James Mativo from Makaveti Village in Kyanzasu sub-location in Machakos County is one such farmer. He proudly displays a healthy crop, with green maize ripe for plucking to recent visitors.  “I planted just before the rain season began, to ensure that the crop would sprout when the rains came,” he explained.

For many farmers in the semi-arid Eastern Province in Kenya, preparing fields ahead of the rains is not enough to guarantee a good harvest. Having the right seed is vital too. Mativo buys certified seed, suited to the area’s climate, from Dryland Seed Company in Machakos town. “For these dryland varieties, the first rains are very important,” explains Peter Mutua, a Dryland agronomist. “It allows the farmers to take full advantage of this scarce resource from germination. This is particularly important as most farmers grow maize under rainfed conditions in Kenya, even in the semi-arid areas.”

Just as a relay is a team effort, so is the process of delivering quality seed to farmers. It takes many people, working together, to ensure that farmers get the best seed suited for the climatic conditions in their locales. Take the case of drought tolerant maize varieties: the process starts with breeders who develop the germplasm and share it with research partners, who pass the baton to the seed companies, who produce large quantities of the seed, which smaller-scale farmers buy from the seed companies. The companies cross-pollinate sources of desirable traits to develop maize varieties relevant for the farmers.  Often they start with sources from public research organizations like the CIMMYT. 

“We try to improve the existing varieties and come up with varieties that are better than those in the market,” says Peter Setimela, a CIMMYT maize breeder.  “With climate change, varieties developed 20 years ago no longer suit the changing environment” Breeders working under the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Initiative led by CIMMYT have developed varieties known as the Kenya Dryland Varieties (KDV) series. KDV 1 – 6 varieties were released to farmers by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), as well as the companies Freschco and Dryland Seed. The fourth variety of the series is the one now growing on Mativo’s quarter-hectare farm. 

It is not only climate change that concerns breeders; they want also to develop varieties that are disease resistant and relevant to farmers’ other needs – proper milling and cooking quality or flavor, for example.  “This is why we have farm trials,” explains Peter Setimela. These trials are done in collaboration with the national research organizations, such as KARI in Kenya. “We look for traits that farmers prefer,” says Setimela, “Farmers in Kenya prefer white maize for making ugali. In Zimbabwe, some people prefer ZM309 because it is sweet when roasted.”

The seed companies and KARI multiply seed to furnish adequate supplies for farmers’ demands, but also depend on farmers they hire to produce that seed. “We work with groups of farmers who have at least five acres (2.5 hectares) per farmer,” says Ngila Kimotho, Managing Director of Dryland Seed Company.  The seed company clusters the farmers by sub-location and trains them. This, according to Musa Juma, a contract farmer for Dryland in Kibwezi, Eastern Province, is ‘risk free planting.’” “This is because you are planting for a known market, you don’t have to start worrying about looking for where to sell the produce as you plant,” explains Juma. “An additional perk is that the company provides the seed.”

Seed companies also use local demonstration farms to exhibit the performance of various maize varieties winning over farmers’ to the new varieties they see outperforming traditional ones. Dryland Seed Company also uses vernacular radio programs to disseminate information on the most productive maize varieties. “These are interactive shows and we have farmers calling in to find out what is the best variety to grow when and where to obtain the seed,” explains Kimotho.  According to Kimotho, farmers prefer open pollinated varieties as that are early-maturing and drought tolerant and thus better suited for the region’s short rains.

“The basic need in the dry areas is food security,” says Kimotho, adding that farmers only sell surplus seed when they have a rare bumper harvest. To cater for the diversified market, Dryland markets seed in packets from 100 grams to 1 kilogram, so there is an affordable option for every farmer. The 100 gram package is popular with those who are keen to try out new varieties. “Even students buy it for their parents to try,” says Kimotho. Smallholder farmers, most of whom are women, also choose this option to ensure a subsistence maize crop for their families.

By the same token, farmers are reluctant to place all their trust in a single variety. On Mativo’s farm, he spreads the risk by planting hybrids alongside beans and cowpeas. “When the rains are good, the hybrids do well and have high yields, but if the rains are not so good, I still have food from the KDV,” says Mativo. “It would be very sad for a farmer to lack food. When I have food, then my neighbors are also food secure,” he adds. Mativo uses ox drawn ploughs on his farm, but he also occasionally employs a few manual laborers, some of whom he pays in kind with maize grain, at their request.  

In the rare years that farmers get a bumper harvest, they need to sell the surplus. But when there is a high supply of maize, the prices are low, and storage becomes an even more vital component of the value chain: the grain requires a pest-free mechanism that also saves the maize from fungal infections, some of which can produce deadly toxins.   Working with jua kali artisans, the Catholic Diocese in Embu and South Nyanza, CIMMYT has helped smallholder farmers store up to 20 bags of maize at home in airtight metal silos.

Surplus grain is thus safe until market prices become favorable. “I have enough to feed my family and even some left over that I can save and later sell, when there is a shortage in the market,” says Pamela Akoth, a farmer in South Nyanza. Thanks to the metal silo, Akoth says, she no longer experiences grain losses. In this way, the farmer and the jua kali artisan benefit, as do the young men who are trained in making the metal silos, allowing them to earn a living from the trade.

Ultimately, every participant in this value chain, or relay, is focused on one thing – food security. To ensure that ugali can be served in every household, everyday, everyone in this chain needs to pass the baton and play their part in ensuring that farmers have access to quality seed. This race may be slower but every transition, just like the relay, is as important as the next, with everyone playing an integral role in the process. 

From the start of the breeding process, to the harvest itself, every part of the ‘race’ is just as important as the photo finish, showing the family enjoying their meal.