After being a maize farmer for three decades, former high school teacher Athanus Kioko noticed that for the first time the harvests were dwindling at an alarming rate.
Before he used to harvest on average 30 bags per acre, but in recent seasons he could only manage a paltry 10 bags. His frustration has been growing for some time as agriculture has been his source of income educating her four children and providing income for her other projects.
But Kioko is not alone. Thousands of Kenyan smallholder farmers are struggling with dwindling yields. Researchers blame it on poor farming management where farmers are stuck in age old farming practices even in the wake of changing climatic conditions and soil nutrient depletion due to over tillage.
Seed access has particularly been identified as the bane of poor yields. Farmers still use seeds from the earlier harvests for replanting, a fact studies blames for seeds not sprouting. Infact currently five of out every ten seeds planted never sprout due to diminished nutrients.
The quest for the right seeds howerver doesn’t end there. More than 1.3 million Kenyan farmers do not have any maize seeds to plant and around 3.7 million people in Kenya are food insecure. The demand for seeds in 13 countries in Africa combined is around 0.5 million tonnes, with the supply being only 0.2 million tonnes.
According to Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), onlyl 1-2 per cent of farmers are using improved seeds.
It is this sorry state of affairs that has seen private companies step in as governments struggle to bridge the yawning deficit between demand and supply. Regional agro input company Elgon Kenya Limited is one such company. Through its dedicated seeds companies and in partnership with local and international research institutions and seed breeders it has come up with superior seed varieties that are high yielding, disease and drought resistant and fast maturing seed varieties.
“Our argument now is having seeds that can facilitate producing more with little. We are coming up with seeds that can assist farmers use small portions but end up reaping big harvests. This is particularly important at this time when population increase has risen but arable land decreased due to competition with other sectors,” said Samuel Kamau from Elgon Kenya seed department.
Kamau further added that as the weather changes there has been need to create seeds that can withstand extremely high or low temperatures or go for longer without water. “Again we want to ensure that most of the seeds can do well in virtually all areas,” Kamau added.
One such seed variety is the Elgon Kenya Prestige 02 maize variety. This new variety in the market is resistant to virtually all maize varieties, is highly yielding, producing over 50 to 70 acres per bag. It grows well in all soil types and in every climatic condition. It takes four months on average to mature.
But the seeds department has invested in other superior varieties across various crops including high yielding Black Ball F1 and Sweet Shine F1 watermelon varieties that fights diseases and pests and doubles yields. Others include the Green Bell F1 capsicum variety.
The cost of the high quality seeds in Kenya has also held back many smallholders in achieving the highest yields, as well as limiting them in trying out new crops. But the first moves by companies like Elgon Kenya to package the seeds into small affordable packs is now opening doors for agropreneurs to experiment with new, more lucrative crops. This move into seed production is essential in raising yields and incomes for farmers, say international think-tanks.
Farmers have long shied away from purchasing top quality seeds due to the prohibitive charges and the bulk packaging. However, taking a lead from the success of fast-moving consumer products in rural areas, Elgon Kenya has come up with the idea of reducing the size of packets of seeds and fertilizers to help smallholder farmers take the first steps to scale-up production.
“It has been a revolution in my cabbage farm since I started buying the Elgon Kenya 50 grammes seeds. Traditionally there were only the 5kg and 10kg packs of cabbage seeds which were first expensive and I found it hard to manage the planting. The new packages by Elgon Kenya which have been meant for farmers like me have meant that I can subsidize my land into different crops each taking a particular portion. Packaging seeds in these small sachets was a very smart move by Elgon Kenya. It has assisted me to plan my small land,” said Judy Auma a farmer in Siaya Kisumu.