By Alina Paul-Bossuet
The Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in 60 years destroying crops, killing livestock and causing hunger and famine across parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda.
A drought-hit farmer in Malawi stands near his lost maize crop, while the pigeon peas he planted flourish in the background. (Photo credit: ICRISAT)
Governments and humanitarian organizations are responding to the crisis, distributing food as well as agricultural inputs such as seeds.
Given that drought regularly strikes this region – and researchers say climate change will bring more extreme weather – we need to use the current emergency operations to support longer term agricultural recovery and development. In the coming weeks, we must involve the affected farmers and the existing local economy (such as the village shopkeepers, mostly agro-dealers selling seeds) wherever possible to find durable solutions to make communities more resilient when the next drought comes.
This concept is not new. Back in 2000, a UN task force on food security in the Horn of Africa highlighted the need for farmers to adopt drought-tolerant crop varieties. The challenge is to get these seeds to farmers and encourage them to grow these crops on a large scale.
SMALL SEED PACKS
Eunice Makenga is part of the answer. She runs a small shop in Kenya’s Nzaui district selling seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. She is one of only a few agro-dealers to sell drought-tolerant seeds of sorghum, pigeon pea, cowpea and beans which she buys as small ‘trial packs’ from Janey Leakey’s farm in Nakuru.
Leakey’s seed business is the first in Kenya to specialise in these “neglected crops” and to supply them in small packs designed especially for the small holder farmer.
“I can afford to stock them because they are cheap,” Makenga says. “This is also a good way to get farmers to try these seeds. But there is not much demand. Farmers need more incentives to buy them,” she adds.
The reality in the field is that the demand for and supply of such drought-resistant crops is poor in this region. Farmers grow some for their household consumption but mostly focus on growing marketable crops like maize that suffer in dry areas.
“Part of the longer-term solution to problem harvests is to grow climate-adapted crops,” says Leakey, who founded Leldet seed company three years ago. “When you look around you in failed rain areas, farmers are doing better with pigeon pea, sorghum and beans than maize. But, they will still focus on growing maize next year as that’s where they see the market being,” she adds.
Though drought-resistant seeds are available, farmers have been slow to embrace the new varieties.
THE ‘LELDET BOUQUET’
“We tell farmers that diversifying to more drought resistant crops is key to cope with the changing climate,” Leakey says. To encourage them, she offers a “Leldet Bouquet”: Instead of 2kg maize seeds costing 300 Kenyan shillings ($3), the farmer can get a mix of five seed packets with an equivalent weight of cowpeas, sorghum, beans, pigeon pea, millet and maize. The mix of crops in the “bouquet” is adapted to the farmer’s location.
Leakey has been working with researchers from the International Crop Research Centre for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Agricultural Research for Development in Africa (IITA), three of the 15 centres that make up the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the world’s largest international agriculture research coalition), as well as the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) to develop and distribute higher yielding and more drought- and pest-resistant crop varieties to improve harvests for smallholder farmers in difficult conditions.
The project has also been supported by The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to develop small seed packets particularly suited to poor farmers, in order to encourage adoption of more resilient farming. Sales show that such small trial packs can be effective in getting higher yielding and better adapted seeds to small farmers, particularly women.
The successful harvests farmers have had after sowing the contents of these packs suggests that food security could be better achieved if more farmers grew adapted crops which survive dry spells and erratic rainfall.
BOOSTS IN HARVESTS
For instance, improved varieties of pigeon pea have produced an average 38 percent rise in harvests, ICRISAT data shows. Boosts for improved groundnut and chickpea varieties have averaged 59 percent and 33 percent respectively.
Before the improved varieties became available, yields for these “neglected crops” had been low in the region.
“All of these (traditionally) are grown fromseeds farmers have saved from the previous harvest or procured from the market where seed quality is poor and adaptation not known. This means a higher risk of crop failure or poor yields,” Leakey says.
Leakey says women are keen to try the packs. They are affordable (the price of a cup of tea in some cases) and enable farmers to experiment to see what benefits they get.
Leakey’s seed packs speak to the women in a language they can understand, with three small packs of crops such as sorghum, cowpea and beans sold as “pangusa njaa haraka” which means “wipe away hunger quickly” in Swahili.
To the woman buying, this means that she can give her children sorghum porridge for breakfast and beans and cowpea leaves for other meals within a relatively short time period. Farmers are also keen to try pigeon pea varieties that mature quickly, need less water and can be used for food, fodder and firewood.
We need to ensure adapted and improved seeds are supplied to farmers in a sustainable way – and this involves strengthening the weak local seed distribution system.
Ultimately, we need policies to encourage local seed businesses to sell improved varieties of drought- tolerant crops to smallholder farmers. ICRISAT is working with organizations such as The African Seed Trade Association, which lobbies for better incentives to help small seed companies develop their supply and rural retail network.
Farmers will only grow these improved crops on a large scale if they are convinced that they are the best bet for income generation. Including crops like sorghum in national strategic grain reserves and the World Food Program (WFP) Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative could help.
Imagine the Kenyan government orders thousands of tons of sorghum and other drought-resistant crops to fill its strategic grain reserve shops. Farmers would then see these crops in a new light because there is a market for them. They would want to buy such seeds for the next planting season. And Makenga would be delighted to see them coming into her shop.
And if rains are scarce early next year, these farmers will still reap a harvest and manage to escape the drought trap they find themselves in today.