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April 21, 2008

Kenyan radio drama to teach advantages of seed pre-planting soaking

For most of the past 30 years, a Welsh scientist has ploughed a lonely furrow as he perfected a simple way to improve crop yields in poor countries. But next month his idea will bear fruit – because one of Africa’s most popular and influential soap operas is basing a new storyline on it.

Each episode of television soap Makutano Junction is watched by five million people in Kenya, plus viewers outside the country.

The programme combines drama with practical advice for farmers and other citizens. Makutano Junction staged an election a week before Kenya’s December elections, to help people understand the electoral process. When the election results triggered rioting in Kenya, the soap’s actors broadcast an appeal for peace.

For its next storyline, Bangor University agronomist Dr David Harris was enlisted as script consultant. Since 1980 he has been trialling and promoting “seed priming,” where farmers soak seeds in water before planting them. The plants grow more vigorously than non- soaked seeds and produce, on average, 20% to 30% more grain.

That could mean the difference between life and death in parts of Africa where children and adults die of starvation or malnutrition.

The new storyline will encourage farmers to try seed priming. It begins with farmhand Maspeedy being spotted with a large barrel of maize seeds and liquid. Local troublemaker Snake believes that Maspeedy is fermenting illicit alcohol. The community eventually believes Maspeedy’s story about “seed priming” and the message is relayed that soaking seeds prior to planting is a simple and effective way to improve yields.

The story will begin on Kenyan TV on May 8 and will be screened later on Ugandan TV.

Bangor University has a long history of helping to improve agriculture and the environment in poor countries, founding the Centre for Arid Zone Studies 26 years ago. This is now called CAZS Natural Resources, because it also covers non-arid areas.

Dr Harris, its deputy director, said, “It’s really great that this method is being highlighted in the soap in such an entertaining way, and will reach so many more people. I’ve been working on seed priming since about 1980, on and off. I started when I worked in Botswana.”

He said the idea was not new – his father soaked runner bean seeds before planting them – but he and his team had researched its effectiveness with different crops in various situations overseas, determining the optimum soaking period.

The technique was of limited use to European farmers, who had better seeds and managed their crops more intensively. “Most crops can respond to seed priming,” said Dr Harris. We’ve worked with maize, wheat, barley, chickpea, cowpea and highland rice. A reasonable average is 20% to 30% higher yield, in some cases more.

“We’ve had some good successes in Bangladesh, where 5,000 to 10,000 farmers use seed-priming now. But you can always think it would be great if more people knew about it and used it.”

IC Network

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