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Poor wheat growing techniques lead to low yields by Kenyan farmers

Kenya’s wheat pro­duc­tion has been on a down­ward spiral in re­cent years, even as de­mand soars driven by rising urb­an­iz­a­tion where people are de­vel­op­ing an ap­pet­ite for mass-pro­duced, con­veni­ent foods con­tain­ing pro­cessed wheat flour.

The na­tional de­mand for wheat has in­creased to 900 tonnes an­nu­ally against na­tional pro­duc­tion of 300 tonnes, with de­mand rising by some 5 per cent each year on rural urban mi­gra­tion and chan­ging di­et­ary habits. This yawn­ing de­fi­cit has taken its toll on food prices and the coun­try GDP growth as wheat is re­garded Kenya’s second staple food after maize.

This has seen Kenya im­port about 60 per­cent of its wheat needs mainly from Egypt and Maur­i­tius, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Ag­ri­cul­ture. And while it is not nearly as widely grown as maize or rice, wheat nev­er­the­less is an im­port­ant com­pon­ent of the coun­try’s do­mestic food pro­duc­tion – being grown on about 4 per cent of the coun­try’s ar­able land, as 160,000 hec­tares out of 4,000,000 hec­tares of ar­able land.

Among the major causes of the de­fi­cit has been a cata­strophic wheat stem rust ori­gin­at­ing from Uganda and re­spons­ible for 50-70 per cent of yield losses which has rav­aged Kenya’s wheat farm­ers for the bet­ter part of this dec­ade.
The deadly mutant fungus, Ug99, named after its dis­cov­ery in Uganda in 1999, is spread by wind-borne spores. By 2003, most of Kenyan’s wheat vari­et­ies had been iden­ti­fied as sus­cept­ible to the fungus which turns fields of wheat into black stubble, with empty spikes that hold little or no grain.

Narok one of the lead­ing wheat pro­du­cing re­gions in the coun­try, has con­stantly been among the hard­est hit re­gions by the Ug99 fungus, drastic­ally af­fect­ing wheat sup­ply in the coun­try. In 2008 the at­tack on Narok farms pushed wheat flour prices up by 100 per­cent. The drop in wheat pro­duc­tion and in Narok out­put again in 2010 was flagged by the Min­istry of Plan­ning as one of the factors that slowed Kenya’s eco­nomic growth in 2011.

The dis­ease has mainly af­fected small-scale farm­ers be­cause most of them can­not af­ford to buy the pesti­cides, lead­ing to up to 80 per cent of their crop being lost. It is es­tim­ated that up to 30,000 tonnes of wheat are lost to the rust an­nu­ally.
The cost of spray­ing pesti­cide four times be­fore the har­vest is es­tim­ated to be Sh10,000 per hec­tare, or about 33 per cent of the cost of pro­duc­tion. This bur­den on im­pot­ent pest con­trol meth­ods has come at a time when higher yields hold the key to sta­bil­ising the prices of products de­rived from Kenya’s wheat.

But it hasnt been all doom and gloom for some farm­ers. Private com­pan­ies privy to the value of wheat in the coun­try have been act­ively in­volved in as­sist­ing farm­ers ac­cess timely and cost ef­fect­ive pest con­trol mech­an­isms. Elgon Kenya Lim­ited is one such com­pany. Through an array of pesti­cides that goes with farmer train­ings, the com­pany en­sures that every farmer has ac­cess to these ar­sen­als at their con­veni­ence thanks to its rich agrovet and stock­ist dis­tri­bu­tion net­work across the coun­try.

Such timely in­ter­ven­tions, in­dustry play­ers say, are cap­able of bridging the gap­ing de­fi­cit by even up to a half, a fact which would be a major leap in giv­ing the coun­try an al­tern­at­ive staple in times of maize short­age which has be­come en­demic in the coun­try. “We spot­ted first hand how dan­ger­ous this trend was going after our field of­ficers spent time with farm­ers in Narok. We de­cided to step in and we have been glad to no­tice wheat farms flour­ish­ing,” said Nel­son Maina Head of Com­mu­nic­a­tion at Elgon Kenya Ltd.

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