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February 08, 2010

Scientists work on new, more nutritious sorghum as maize farming declines

by Halima Abdallah

Kenyan scientists are trying to enhance the nutritional value of sorghum, a cereal that is likely to replace maize — which continues to suffer effects of erratic climate — as the country’s staple food.

“We know maize has more protein and is easily digestible but we want to make sorghum to be even better than maize,” said Dr Joel Mutisya, molecular biologist working on sorghum at Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

According to the scientists, 70 per cent of Kenya is now unable to produce maize as former growing areas are turning into semi arid areas conducive for growing sorghum, a drought-resistant plant.

Sorghum is low in essential amino acids, vitamins A and E, and low zinc and iron. A diet based on sorghum alone is not adequate to meet the nutritional needs of children and the sustenance of adults.

In an effort to include the missing nutrients that people get from maize, the scientists are working on getting the nutrients into sorghum by adding zinc, iron and protein. They are cross-breeding the local sorghum variety with maize hoping for a more nutritionally enhanced variety.

“Sorghum is not rich in essential amino acid. We are improve this alongside the availability of iron and zinc — the two minerals that are very essential in our health but at the moment these are minute in the sorghum. We want to make them more available,” Dr Mutisya said.

Sorghum is poorly digested making one feel full most of the time after eating, thanks to the grain’s ‘binding’ compounds. The scientists are using genes from maize which can reverse the production of these compounds in sorghum seed. This will ease digestion and absorption of all the nutrients when eaten.

The final product is to be available to the farmers in the next five years. “We are more than 50 per cent done and everything is on track,” said Dr Mutisya.

Agricultural organisations are now supporting countries to enhance the use of sorghum.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, through a programme, Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement of Sorghum and Millet received $18 million from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help small-holder farmers in moisture-deficient areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia increase their yields of sorghum, pearl millet, and finger millet to improve food security and increase the income of farmers.

However, Kenya is not abandoning maize production; it is making efforts through long term projects like Water Efficient Maize for Africa to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties.

Maize is the staple food in Kenya. However, reports indicates that more than four million Kenyans will face an acute shortage of their staple food starting April due to shortages in the last two crop season resulting from erratic weather conditions. This will leave the country highly dependent on imported maize.

The East African

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