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As drought makes harvests uncertain, Kenya’s farmers mull a seed change

by Justus Wanzala | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 16 October 2017 15:30 GMT

Farmers in Matungulu, in Kenya's Machakos County - one holding a calabash filled with maize seed - attend a field training day on crop planting in dry conditions, April 11, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Justus Wanzala

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Using imported seed, "you are not sure if you will harvest enough to offset the costs" - so local seed is gaining ground, farmers say

MATUNGULU, Kenya, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The onset of long rains in Matungulu, a sub-county of Machakos County in eastern Kenya, heralds a race against time for local farmers.

Annual precipitation in Matungulu is often below the national average, and because rainfall is so unreliable farmers plant their crops as soon as the first downpour arrives.

But harvests commonly fail here. The majority of farmers have only small pieces of land, and they rely heavily on planting maize, a crop that is proving vulnerable to drought.

To deal with the threat, many farmers have begun changing what they grow, particularly by adding crops beyond maize.

“We are seeking alternatives to monoculture due to dwindling harvests,” said Samuel Wathome, one farmer in Matungulu.

Like others in the area, he also wants to stop buying expensive seed each year produced by big agricultural companies, fearing the combination of debt and more frequent crop failures could land him in trouble.

Wathome belongs to a farmers’ group affiliated with the Institute for Culture and Ecology, a non-governmental organisation that is helping farmers tackle increasingly extreme weather by diversifying their crops and saving part of their harvest to replant in subsequent seasons.

These days, paying for expensive seed is a risk, he said. “Even as you grow the crops you are not sure if you will harvest enough to offset the costs,” he said.

Now, as in the past, “farmers should own the seed selection process”, he said.


The Open Source Seed Systems programme aims to help farmers do that. Started by Hivos, a Dutch development organisation working with the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, it promotes research and training to help farmers select and save seed, and diversify their crops while avoiding patent-protected seeds.

It also helps farmers lobby government for policies that will give them alternatives to using seed supplied by big agricultural companies.

Right now, “food systems (are) controlled by a few companies and governments instead of farmers and consumers,” said Willy Douma, a Hivos programme officer.

Paul Ngwiri, a farmer from Matungulu, is one of a growing number of farmers in Matungulu who has switched away from using patented seed, Douma said. Ngwiri said he is saving about 6,000 Kenya shillings ($60) a season as a result.

 “I no longer buy seeds and fertilisers and spend less on insecticides,” he said, and his harvests have remained steady or increased.

Buying locally produced seed that is certified for quality can be one option for farmers – but producers say the supply is not yet steady.

Drought in Kenya in recent years, for instance have made it harder to reliably produce enough seed locally, said Robert Musyoki of Nairobi-based Simlaw Seeds Company.

A sorghum field, with cowpeas in the foreground, in Kenya, June 4, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Justus Wanzala


Alessio Colussi, of the plant production and protection unit at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said seed bought from international companies often produces bigger harvests in good years, but doesn’t always deliver reliable harvests in bad years.

“In most cases (the seeds) are hybrids and potentially more productive but require a much more suitable set of environmental conditions in order to express their higher productive potential,” he said.

Local seeds, on the other hand, may be less productive in good years but often are “capable of thriving well” in variable local conditions, he said.

Ngila Kimotho, the managing director of Dryland Seeds Limited, a local company that produces drought-tolerant seed varieties, said stringent quality control measures imposed by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service slow down local seed production, and some companies lack enough access to loans to prosper.

He would like to see a well-managed subsidy programme to help farmers access and plant locally produced, quality certified seed, rather than relying simply on the seed they save from their own harvest.

 “This will improve farmer productivity and ensure food security,” he said. 

(Reporting by Justus Wanzala; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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