Farmers stuck with old crops despite climate threat

Scientists are sounding the alarm on farmers’ obsession with old crops that are threatened by changing climate and which ultimately may have a severe effect on food security in the country.

Kenya has been teetering on the brink of an acute food shortage as failed rains due to changes in weather affect planting and harvesting seasons. The situation is further complicated by the fact that traditional crops like maize, rice and wheat which were the mainstay of many farmers are recording dwindling yields at an alarming rate. Farmers are reporting  upto half of reduced yields. But even as the picture becomes grim, farmers are still adamant in planting these crops and wont switch to any other.

Maxwell Ouma from Siaya is one such farmer. In the last ten years, maize yields from his two hectare family land have been reducing. But he has become so much attached to the maize, the staple food in the larger Kenya that he is afraid to shift into growing any other form of food crop.

"Ten years ago, our harvest averaged 1.5 tonnes of maize per hectare, today, the average harvest is half of this amount and sometimes, there is zero harvest because rains fail us," said Ouma, 54-year-old father of five. "Climate change has changed weather patterns in Kenya. The rains are too much or loot little. Rains come too early or too late. The farmers we have spoken to are aware of this but they are held captive by the fear of unknown," said Fridah Maina, an agriculture economist with the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI).

She has been involved in a KARI's project that is educating farmers on how to practice sustainable agriculture, ensuring that soils are well fed and crops they grow are adaptive to the prevailing weather conditions. Her experience is that farmers are playing safe on climate change. This means they are reluctant to change to other food crops because they fear this will affect their household food security.

The challenge is that maize crop in particular, which is grown in almost every small scale farmer in Kenya is very vulnerable to change in weather patterns. For instance, lack of rains at any stage of the crops development makes it to dry up. "We are giving farmers options like growing vegetables that in a place like Siaya, there is shortage. This means there is ready market for what they grow. Vegetables take only three months to be harvested. Farmers can sell some of the vegetables and use the money to buy gains from the market," said Maina.

The small holder farmers are however fearful of going into unknowns. But when they see that this strategy really works, they are slowly embracing its. Maina gives the case of Bungoma in western Kenya where this form of education is also being implemented.
"We adopted some farmers as an example and assisted them to grow vegetables. In three months, they started harvesting and when their colleagues saw they are getting some money into their pockets, they have started adopting the model," said Maina.

Essentially, the plan by KARI and other agriculture development organizations in various parts of the country is to help farmers identify and grow crops that are more resilient to drought. Climate change has changes rainfall patterns that farmers in countries like Kenya have depended on for decades to plan their planting cycles.

In Makueni region of eastern Kenya, farmers are being encouraged to increase their growing of cassava, a drought tolerant crop because the area's weather conditions has severely changed even to support latest breeds of maize that do not require much rainfall. "We are encouraging the farmers to diversify, but most have to see it to believe," said Maina. But agriculture scientists are also working to develop entirely new maize varieties that require much less water to mature.

For instance, several organizations are supporting national research institutes in several African countries to develop what is known as the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).

The project is seen as crucial for Africa especially when the effects of climate change are starting to be felt. Three quarters of the world's severe droughts in the last ten years have happened in Africa and in particular, the Horn of Africa region that includes Kenya.

The other initiative meant to enable farmers become more resilient is the provision of weather-indexed crop and livestock insurance. The insurance targets small holder farmers meaning that the premiums are very low to enable affordability.
Farmers are compensated every time there is less rainfall or more rainfall that what the area receives and if that lack of rain or more rain will affect the crop yield.

The insurance cover has come in handy at the time when crop scientists, agriculture extension officers and even farmers themselves say that have started noticing the effects of climate change. Similar type of climate change mitigation effort has been started by the African Union Commission under a project known as the African Risk Capacity (ARC-F) Insurance Company initially capitalized at 200 million.

The company will help African countries who are shareholders in the company to forecast drought risks likely to face their population and advice on the early measures including providing funds through the company to help them prevent drought conditions from developing into famine situations.