Smallholder farmers, agro dealers and extension officers in Kenya can now access the exact seed varieties that suit their planting zones within minutes thanks to an online tool that has collected growing conditions for the 47 counties.
Dubbed Mbegu Choice, the first of its kind in Sub Saharan Africa allows a smallholder farmer get information on the specific seed variety that would do well in their area while allowing them to choose other attributes that may interest them. These include pest resistance, drought tolerance, and cooking time among others.
“A strong food production system starts with high-yielding crop varieties that have been developed for specific farming environments. These varieties have been bred for certain characteristics, such as early maturity or drought tolerance that farmers may prefer. But for too long it’s been very hard for Kenyan farmers to make informed choices about the seed available to them,” said Aline O’Connor, director of Nairobi-based Agri Experience Ltd, which launched the new free crop variety selection platform.
The online database currently has 200 commercialized crop varieties including 61 varieties of maize, 25 of common bean, 11 of cassava, 13 of Irish potato, and 12 of sorghum. Out of the 200 varieties, 10 have been introduced into the market in the last 10 years.
Farmers log into the portal www.mbeguchoice.com from where they are able to key in basic information like their county, the crop they are interested in, the planting seasons their county experiences and the desired crop attributes like pest resistance or drought tolerance.
MbeguChoice then generates a list of suitable seed varieties along with the names of the seed companies producing and distributing them.
For example, a farmer in Kakamega interested in farming climbing beans keys in their details including the ecological zones. At the click of a button, the portal returns results of the six climbing beans varieties that suits the area. In this case they include MAC 13, MAC 16, MAC 64 and Flora among others. The portal also shows the farmer the year the breed was released, maturity period of each variety and which seed company sells it.
But the service is also a major score for the agro dealers who have had to traditionally struggle with limited information on what to recommend farmers as seed companies bombard them with numerous varieties. “When farmers come to our shops they will entrust us to guide them on what they should pick. We deal in so many agro inputs, seeds being one of them. The only information we may have about the varieties is what is in the pack which sometimes is not very accurate. We bear the wrath of farmers if they plant and not get results,” said Mrs. Alice Wamae an agro dealer from Embu She now says she feels empowered to authoritatively empower the farmers with the news service.
‘Absentee farmers’, the urban dwellers who trace their roots to the village and whose families are actively involved in agriculture in rural areas have been targeted by the service. Most of them on pass information on what agro inputs their farming families should use. Valentine Okoth a commercial officer in Nairobi is an example. “I moved out of home to get a job which I thankfully have. But I am still part of the farming back in the village. Currently we are not happy with seed production at the moment and how our families are struggling to access them,” Okoth said.
By giving more insights into the seed market, seed industry experts believe that agro dealers will record increased demand for certified seeds which in turn will encourage local seed companies to increase production.
“Agrodealers can use this information to reach out to seed companies and make sure Kenyan farmers have access to the right seeds to increase both the quantity and the quality of their crops,” said Kassim Owino, managing director of Agri SeedCo and an executive board member of the Seed Trade Associate of Kenya (STAK). “MbeguChoice is particularly good for identifying new varieties that have recently come on the market, or varieties with special attributes, such as maize that matches local taste or planting preferences.”
The tool comes at a time when smallholder farmers, the bulk of Kenya’s food producers, have been recording dwindling yield occasioned by obsession with seed varieties that they have used from the colonial times and the farmers planting “out of position” which means that most of the varieties they plant have not been bred for their planting location and therefore not capable of delivering optimum yields.
“Farmers don’t want to be planting Chelalang bean variety, which was developed to perform well in highland regions, if they farm at mid- or low-range altitudes,” said Dr. Philip Leley, a breeder and research center manager at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.
The online portal has been developed by a consortium of agricultural players in Kenya including KALRO, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), Kenyan crop seed companies, and Agri Experience, with support from Kenya Markets Trust.