KAKAMEGA, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A sought-after and drought-tolerant Kenyan crop, little grown because its yields are so low, has gotten a boost with the release of a new hybrid variety.
Scientists in Kenya say it is the first country in Africa to develop a hybrid seed variety of finger millet, which they hope will supplement the country’s drought-hit main staple – maize – and help fight diabetes as a result of its low sugar content.
Finger millet is one of Kenya’s most important drought-tolerant cereals, but farmers have not expanded production much because the yield is low. Government records put the amount of land planted with finger millet at 65,000 hectares, despite rising demand which has led to the grain commanding premium prices in shops.
“Unlike other popular cereals like maize and rice which have been hybridised, farmers who grow finger millet depend solely on non-hybridised varieties that are very low yielding, thus discouraging them from expanding their acreage,” said Chrispus Oduori, a scientist from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).
But finger millet has now been hybridised – or scientifically cross-bred - and the new variety is yielding up to twice as much as existing ones. Early trials have shown that, with good management, the hybrid variety yields between 18 and 24 (90 kg) bags per hectare, compared to the maximum 12 bags per hectare harvested from existing varieties.
According to Joyce Maling’a, the centre director of KARI in Kakamega, the institute is now paying more attention to orphaned crops – those that have been neglected over time for reasons such as low yield or short shelf life. The crops are seen as one way of coping with the variations in climatic conditions, which can, for example, drastically reduce the maize crop in an unusually dry or rainy year.
KARI has established ‘orphaned seed units’ where farmers can buy such seeds, including finger millet, beans and sorghum. Seed companies in Kenya focus only on selling hybrid seed varieties that farmers must buy each year from dealers rather than planting from last year’s crop.
“I believe that improving the productivity of such crops will make a huge difference in combating food insecurity in the country, which is already threatened by climate change,” said Maling’a.
One way of doing this is through creating hybrid varieties, by cross-breeding two varieties to try to get a plant with the best traits of each parent.
“Before the 1960s, the maize crop, for example, was not as productive as it is today. But now it is the most reliable food crop for countries like Kenya and many others in Africa, thanks to hybridisation technology,” said Oduori, the principal researcher for development of the hybrid finger millet variety, which receives funding from the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
Oduori told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the significant improvement in the yield of finger millet will encourage more farmers to grow it. “This is a major breakthrough that will awaken this sleeping giant,” he said.
KARI has been developing the hybrid finger millet since 2004, and scientists at the institution say the crop is in the final stages of a national trial, usually conducted by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, and is expected to be released to farmers next season
Oduori said there are millions of people in East Africa who depend largely on finger millet for food, and many others who use it for health reasons. Health experts say that finger millet has a very low sugar content, making it an important ingredient for diabetes management.
“We advise diabetic patients to go for brown chapatti made from finger millet flour, brown bread and other non-refined foodstuffs as a natural way of controlling their blood sugar,” said Nancy Ngugi, chairwoman of the Diabetes Management Information Centre.
An earlier study published in ScienceDirect found that when fed to diabetic animals, finger millet controlled glucose levels, improved the level of antioxidants and hastened wound healing.
Diabetes is one of the most important non-communicable diseases in Kenya, and the entire continent. Ngugi says 4.2 percent of Kenyans have the disease, the majority of them in urban areas. “In many cases, diabetes is a chronic lifestyle disease, and observing what to eat is an important part of its management,” she said.
She said that over 50 percent of admissions to major hospitals are as a result of non-communicable diseases, and 25 percent of them are due to diabetes-related complications.
But for KARI, the main reason for developing the hybrid finger millet was to provide farmers with another cereal crop that can supplement existing staples at a time of climate change.
“It is clear that Kenya relies on maize more than any other staple,” said Oduori. “Yet with the changing climatic conditions, we have witnessed maize fail to perform due to insufficient or excess rainfall, climate related pests and diseases, and, in many cases, because of poor timing of the rains during the planting season.”
KARI is now prioritising research into finger millet, sorghum, cassava and other crops that have high yield potential and can withstand more extreme climatic conditions.
Finger millet flour is produced by leading grain milling companies in Kenya and has found its way to all the country’s major supermarkets, where it is sold at premium prices.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org