Orphaned crops find homes in E. Africa women farmersTraditionally neglected finger millet and sorghum that were the highlight of the 80s are making a grand comeback across East Africa with women farmer groups reaping from their demand while insulating themselves against climate change.
Traditionally, farmers, mainly women, dropped the crops because they were low yielding, lacked technological knowhow and had poor seeds.
But today, under the care and tender hands of women farmers, finger millet as well as sorghum are back in the market and are already making positive contributions to the livelihoods of farmers who have religiously over relied in growing maize.
“We have engaged a total of 38 women and common interest groups whom we educate on timely land preparation and undertaking of all crop husbandry practices,” explains Daniel Otwani, a technician on dryland cereals at International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).
According to Otwani, farmers are trained on issues relating to finger millet and sorghum value chain which include crop production, use of elite varieties, best crop management packages that conserve the resources and integrated pest management against the Striga weed.
“We also train and support them in post-harvest handling of the grain to improve grain yields quality which in turn reflects on the market prices they fetch from the same,” Otwani explains.
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The farmers are also trained on value addition of sorghum and finger millet through making of varied products like pastries which include biscuits, mandazi, cakes and crackers that are income generating for some of the women in the groups who market the products in neighbouring schools and market centres.
Many members of the groups now have quality seeds as well as improved yields making them more food secure and financially independent. Other farmers have built decent houses from the proceeds and are also giving their children quality education.
“Three years ago I was making losses from growing maize as a priority crop but this has since changed courtesy of the good management practices that have led my harvest to increase three times,” says Pascilisia Wanyonyi, best finger millet farmer in Kenya according to Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the government.
Wanyonyi started growing finger millet in 1993 by broadcasting traditional varieties without using fertilizers and realised low yields and tedious work.
However, in 2009 together with other women farmers they started collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) where they were availed fertilisers on credit, training on utilization and on farm demonstrations on production technologies.
Wanyonyi is locally viewed as a trainer in finger millet production and value addition by her other women and the community at large. Majority of farmers have nicknamed her Mama Wimbi (Mother of finger millet) and she continues to receive aspiring farmers including the youth in her homestead who come to seek her advice.
Jacqueline Omondi, a widowed finger millet farmer from Ugenya in Siaya County attributes her success to increasing the acreage of her farm from half an acre to two acres as a result of adoption of new technology that involves row planting, micro dosing and application of fertiliser.
“From my two bags of finger millet per acre today I get between seven to eight bags per acre for my consumption as well as for sale,” she explained.
Omondi credits the adoption of new technology for reduced labour cost of husbandry, reduced time of weeding thus reducing drudgery and improved yields.
At only 27 years and on a quarter of an acre, Pamela Ekodi earns 16,000 from her land and plans to expand her farming by hiring more land.
She harvested 250 kilos of finger millet and has reserved 50 kilos of the grain for her own family consumption.
“Before I embarked on growing finger millet my first and second born children could not complete their secondary education due to lack of school fees but now my two children have completed secondary education, thanks to proceeds from the project,” says Margaret Ibeere, a finger millet farmer.
Ibeere’s family income was constrained as there was only one source of income from her husband’s salary that was overstretched to limit.
However, despite all the success, the women have been facing constraints due to lack of a standard weighing system in the market. They end up getting exploited when selling their produce, expensive inputs and unavailability of fertilizer at the right time.
The once thought to be orphaned crops by farmers and scientists, are now proving useful and beginning to change livelihoods of poor women who are often the sole bread winners.