Kenya's farmers, brewers raise a toast to sorghum

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sun, 29 Apr 2012 22:30 GMT
Author: David Njagi
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 EMALI, Kenya (AlertNet) – As some of East Africa’s biggest brewers compete for a slice of the region’s barley and sorghum, they are finding fewer farmers like Samuel Gitonga, and more like Emmanuel Muteti.

On his farm in the Rift Valley, a region known as Kenya’s bread basket, Gitonga has long grown barley to sell to the brewing companies.

Muteti, in contrast, lives in Emali, a parched settlement in Eastern Kenya some 330 km (206 miles) from the coastal town of Mombasa. He recently switched from subsistence farming of maize to a crop newly fancied by beer makers – sorghum.   

What distinguishes the two farmers further is that Gitonga is losing the market for his barley because of low rainfall, which experts link to climate change. But for Muteti, sorghum promises a bounty despite erratic weather patterns.

Changing weather patterns are leading farmers around the world to consider shifting crops, particularly to varieties that are particularly resistant to worsening droughts, floods, high temperatures and salt intrusion. In Kenya, it’s sorghum that’s gaining adherents, while barley is losing them.

For hundreds of Rift Valley barley growers like Gitonga, signs that all was not well began in 2007 when brewers issued new guidelines requiring farmers to improve the moisture content in their barley. 

According to Gitonga, who also chairs the Barley Growers Association of Kenya, farmers could not guarantee a minimum moisture level of nearly 13 percent in their crop because of a continual shortage of rainfall.

“These were issues beyond our control because of the failing weather,” says Gitonga. “We eventually lost out on the contracts.”

Muteti, meanwhile, is gaining Gitonga’s lost market share.

 “The crop is doing well even in this harsh weather,” he says, shooting birds away from his sorghum fields. “But the best thing for me is that there is a ready market (from) East African Breweries,” the company with the region’s largest share of the beer industry.


Not all crop switches in Emali have been so successful.

Mutisya Kaloki, another Emali farmer, is already haunted by acres of withered crops. He says he cannot decide whether it is due to the folly of the weather or of experts.

Kaloki pegged his hopes on planting katumani maize, a variety developed by researchers from Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and one that for years has been considered suitable for planting in arid parts of the country.

But repeated weather extremes have left even hardworking farmers like Kaloki, who hires a tractor to till the land, with a harvest of debts rather than grain, and worries about how to pay the bills.

Some experts believe poor farmers were misled into abandoning traditional crop varieties like sorghum, millet and cassava, leading to their current desperate situation.

Sorghum was long considered a “poor man’s crop”, so communities that could stopped growing it, according to Fabian Muya, of Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture.

But studies show that in the 1950s and 1970s, it thrived best in low-rainfall areas, providing food security to many as a subsistence crop, says Muya.

National sorghum production then was over 200,000 tonnes, he explains, but declined to a low of 60,000 tonnes in 2008.

“Yet it stands out as an adaptation crop for managing climate change and at the same time addressing food security,” Muya says. “It also has commercial prospects that could turn around the economies of the marginal areas in East Africa.”

“Malting companies have come to the conclusion that barley is no longer readily available for brewing and is extremely expensive, and that sorghum provides an excellent substitute,” says Said Silim, eastern and southern Africa director of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).


Silim is hopeful that technology can help boost the livelihoods of poor farmers who are jumping on the sorghum bandwagon.

According to Silim, yields could be as high as eight tonnes per hectare if the quality of sorghum seeds is improved.

In many parts of Africa, yields of staple crops hover around a low one to two tonnes per hectare.

Through ICRISAT’s Sorghum for Multiple Uses project, launched in February this year, Silim says, Kenyan farmers should be able to produce enough sorghum to supply annual domestic demand of up to 75,000 tonnes.

The scheme aims to help reduce food insecurity and poverty by supporting the production of sorghum for a variety of uses in ten districts of Kenya’s Eastern Province as well as parts of Tanzania, explains Silim.

As part of the project, farmers will be instructed in sustainable sorghum production, given access to seeds of improved sorghum varieties, and helped in establishing links to markets.

For now, Emmanuel Muteti is selling his sorghum locally to East Africa Breweries, but he is ready for the prospect of markets opening up further afield. As barley crops dwindle and production of drought-tolerant sorghum increases - Muteti hopes to take advantage of the East African Community’s five-year Food Security Action Plan, which allows the movement of food and trade from areas of surplus to areas of deficit in the region.

Samuel Gitonga, meanwhile, says that he is not ready to shift from barley to sorghum just yet, but if ICRISAT chooses to implement its Sorghum for Multiple Uses project in the Rift Valley, he will consider making the switch.

David Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi. He can be reached on