When Betty Bondo, a farmer in Kenya’s Makueni County, started growing new green gram varieties introduced by ICRISAT, her yield tripled from two bags (200 kg) per acre to six bags (600 kg) per acre. This encouraged her to increase green gram cultivation acreage from 1 to 3 and then to 20. Betty and her family are among the 163,000 households that were reached with improved Drought Tolerant Crops (DTC) varieties that are climate resilient, high yielding and early maturing through ICRISAT’s Accelerated Value Chain Development-Drought Tolerant Crops (AVCD-DTC). These households are gainfully farming as a business, and household members are either out of or on a pathway to escaping absolute poverty and attaining food and nutrition security. Prior to AVCD-DTC program interventions, most farmers used local varieties that were sold in the market, most of which were recycled seed, because there was no improved varieties.
ICRISAT, through AVCD-DTC, introduced farmers in Busia, Siaya, Elgeyo Marakwet, Tharaka Nithi, Kitui, Makueni, and Taita Taveta counties to the improved varieties of sorghum, finger millet, green gram, pigeonpea, groundnut and cowpea. The program also trained them on seed acquisition, planting on time, proper spacing during planting, intercropping, and post-harvest management. The project introduced community seed banks where farmers formed groups to produce quality seeds, save them by storing safely until the next crop season and training in seed banking for continuous supply of seeds, ensuring sustainability even after the project was completed.
It is against these and more milestones that ICRISAT received funding from USAID’s Feed the Future (FtF) Initiative to further enhance agriculture productivity, income, nutrition security, as well as enhance resilience for smallholder farmers in the FTF zones of influence. Dubbed Accelerated Institutional and Food Systems Development (AIFSD), the program will build on the success and lessons learnt from the last six years of implementing the AVCD-DTC program, which supported the seven counties to improve production and create awareness around the benefits of these climate resilient and drought tolerant crops.
The need for a greater push
In Kenya, smallholder farmers constitute approximately 4.5 million of farming households, out of which about 1.5 million are in semi-arid and arid areas growing DTCs, which are a crucial part of the food value chain in Kenya as well as a critical element of the community food system. However, DTCs production in arid and semi-arid areas is compounded with a series of constraints including weak extension system and lack of access to improved crop varieties that are high yielding and drought tolerant
During AVCD-DTC, we learned that a functional and sustainable seed system is a prerequisite for smallholder farmers to benefit from increased productivity. Substantial gaps between potential and actual yields in farmers’ fields still exist mainly due to lack of a functional seed system and weak extension system as well as lack of reliable market for drought tolerant crops. An efficient seed system is necessary for a profitable agribusiness and to improve food and nutrition security hence the funding of AIFSD to close these gaps along the DTC value chain.
Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy, contributing 33% of the GDP. About 80% of the households rely on agriculture as the main source of livelihood. According to Kenya’s annual economic survey, the growth in the agricultural sector has been fluctuating between 3.5 and 6 % in the last 10 years. This not only increases the risk of food insecurity and malnourishment, but also lowers the growth of the national GDP. Additionally, the impact of COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the national economy and agricultural development.
According to a 2020 study by FAO, COVID-19 preventive measures, especially movement restrictions, has had the largest impact on food systems, food security and nutrition. The restriction generally shortened the supply chains and increased demand for local foods. The agri-food SMEs faced reduced production volumes and declines in sales. This led to an increase in the number of people facing food insecurity to approximately 6.2 million from an estimated 2.6 million in late 2019, and a higher number of people that are unable to access nutritious meals.
It is therefore important for the government and development partners to not only sustain but also enhance the economic and agricultural growth, and reverse the trend. This calls for renewed stimulus, and increased investment.
According to Dr Ganga Rao, Principal Scientist at ICRISAT, AIFSD targets 75,000 households that will apply improved DTCs technologies through improved seed, good agronomic practices, and post-harvest handling practices to improve productivity and sell surplus production to improve household income. Dr Rao added that the project will leverage existing government initiatives, public-private partnerships, capitalize on agri-science innovations and use digital technologies for value chain linkages and market intelligence. “The imperative for, and commitment to, a national DTC strategy is important to ease pressure from the over-reliance on major staples like maize, wheat and rice, and create markets for the more under-utilized DTCs,” he noted.
Dr Rebbie Harawa, ICRISAT’s ESA Region and Program Director, sees the production and utilization of DTCs as a significant pathway to food security and nutrition because these crops are both drought tolerant and nutritious. The DTCs also facilitate sustainable farming by fixing nitrogen in the soil, which substitutes inorganic fertilizer. She added that public-private partnerships are crucial as they involve value chain investors and implementers who complement one another to deliver agricultural technologies to farmers.
By Grace Waithira
Communication Assistant, ICRISAT