Climate-smart Kenyan crop hits a setback - hungry birds

by Isaiah Esipisu | @Andebes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 7 August 2013 14:45 GMT

A farmer in Eastern Kenya holds part of his harvest of gadam sorghum. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Isaiah Esipisu

Image Caption and Rights Information
Efforts to adapt crops to changing climate conditions in Kenya face an unexpected obstacle

KITUI, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Gadam, a fast-maturing, drought-tolerant sorghum variety introduced in Kenya as a solution for farmers trying to adapt to changing climate conditions, turns out to have an unexpected drawback – wild birds are eating it just before it can be harvested.

“Such are stumbling blocks to climate adaptation measures being put in place,” said Evans Kituyi, the senior climate change adaptation programme specialist of the International Development Research Centre. “Some of these challenges are usually not foreseen when developing such projects. But we must learn to solve them as we move forward,” he added.

The sorghum variety, selected and introduced in Kenya by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, appears to be a new favourite of the red-billed quelea bird, a type of weaver that moves in flocks of hundreds of thousands, said David Karanja, a research scientist at KARI and the principal investigator for the Gadam Sorghum Production and Marketing Project.

He says that seeds are a major part of the birds’ diet “but they seem to like the taste of the gadam sorghum variety more than anything else, thus causing devastating losses to dry-land farmers along their path,” the scientist said.

ENORMOUS LOSSES

Farmers confirm that their losses to the birds have been enormous.

Richard Mwithia, a smallholder farmer from Chambusia village in Kitui, Eastern Kenya, planted gadam sorghum for the second time this year, and lost all of it to the birds, he said.

When he planted the same crop on his two-acre piece of land for the first time last year, he harvested an impressive 35 (90kg) bags of the grain, and sold 30 of them to the Kenya Breweries Company for Sh67,500 ($840). Five bags were used for food.

“The last time I had earned this kind of money from my farm was in 1997 when I harvested a lot of maize following El Nino rains,” he recalls.

The last year’s sorghum yield encouraged him to try it again. But to his disappointment, this year the quelea birds consumed everything.

Karanja told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the birds never existed in Eastern Kenya until after gadam sorghum was introduced in the area for the first time in 2010.

The birds are known from other areas of Africa, particularly southern Africa. But in such areas they have always preferred wild grasses to cultivated crops, experts say. In Kenya, however, the birds target gadam sorghum, seen as one of the region’s best climate-resilient crop hopes.

Karanja says that there are no effective methods of controlling the birds at the moment. Research is now ongoing to find a sustainable way of controlling them without damaging ecosystems.

SCARECROWS TO CONTROL?

However, some worried farmers in Eastern Kenya have improvised methods of scaring away the birds including by erecting or hiring scarecrows. “I had no choice but to employ three people to physically scare away the birds on a daily basis for about 30 days,” said Silus Mutinda, who planted sorghum on 25 acres of land.

The birds usually attack at the ‘milky’ stage, when the grains are almost maturing.

Other farmers hang obsolete compact discs in their farm fields. “The discs are shiny, and we have discovered that the reflection scares away the birds,” said Cephas Mutua from Kitui Central.

But experts say the most effective remedy may be to encourage many more farmers to plant the crop so that losses are shared and damage to individual farmers is limited. Karanja said that KARI also is in the process of crossbreeding the sorghum variety to get a variety that is not ‘a darling of the birds.’

“This is just one example to demonstrate how difficult and challenging adaptation to climate change can be,” Kituyi said. Some other adaptation projects, he noted, also have failed to take off because communities did not understand the concept, or were not involved in the process of developing the idea.

A fish farming project, particularly in Western Kenya, for example, was developed by the government’s Economic Stimulus Programme, but largely failed after people were contracted to dig fish ponds and supplied with small fish and fish food, but not given adequate knowledge on how to keep the project going, according to Catherine Andeso, one of the beneficiaries of the Kakamega County project.

Experts said they hoped an answer to the quelea bird problem could be reached, as the gadam sorghum variety otherwise appears to be one of the most successful climate change adaptation measures for dry-land farmers in Kenya, said Kituyi, the climate adaptation expert.

THREAT TO BEER

The variety, selected from a range of international options, has adapted well in Kenya’s dry-land areas. Thanks to the high yields it has produced since being introduced three years ago, the Kenyan subsidiary of the East African Breweries Company has started buying the cereal to supplement barley for beer making.

“The farmers are yet to meet the demand of the Kenya Breweries Company,” said Rose Mutuku, the managing director of Smart Logistics, the company that collects the sorghum from farmers on behalf of the regional breweries giant.

The company’s demand, according to Mutuku is 40,000 metric tones of sorghum per year, yet the farmers at the moment can supply only 2,080 metric tones. “This high demand is a reason why this crop must not be abandoned despite the challenges,” she said.

For now, “the quelea birds are the main stumbling block,” said Anne Mbaabu, the director for the market access programme at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The organisation organises sorghum farmers in groups for better market access.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi. He can be reached at esipisus@yahoo.com

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.