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November 03, 2011

Kenya tackles the challenges of growing seed maize

by Emman Omari and Lucas Barasa

Trans Nzoia is the leading producer of maize, Kenya's staple food. Last year it produced 4.5 million bags.

In pre-independence Kenya, this crop was grown on large land holdings by white farmers, mainly from the United Kingdom and South Africa. Today, the offspring of some of these white farmers still remain in the county but Africans are the majority land owners.

Although, the size of land is fast diminishing due to population growth, it is still common in this county to get farmers owning 800 acres of land.

But the future of this crucial cash and food crop is at a crossroads. A combination of factors, including climate change, expensive inputs and inadequate seed supply have all led to a drop in production.

Farmers for this year's crop had many problems as Kenya Seed, the company that supplies seed, which is naturally located in Trans Nzoia, was unable to satisfy demand for its popular varieties in the region.

The falling yields have seen prices rise sharply in the county and elsewhere in the country.

A 90kg bag of maize is currently selling at Sh2,600, nearly four times its normal cost during harvesting time.

There have been suggestions that growing genetically modified maize is one way of addressing this problem.

But this has led to a big debate between the pro and anti-GM crusaders. Growing this maize will start from the seed availability and Kenya Seed, which supplies Kenyan farmers with nearly all their seed needs, is not keen on the matter, at least for the moment.

With the shortage of seed maize experienced earlier this year and the ever rising population, should the company on which the entire country depends go GM?

"We will not close our eyes on GM, but for now we are not on it as we have sufficient capacity to meet farmers' needs," said Mr Alfred Busolo, the parastatal's deputy managing director.

According to him, the US is 90 per cent behind GM seeds while the European Union has resisted its introduction for same reasons Kenyans fear.

"The EU fears genetically modified food will puff up their bodies in the same way chicken broilers do," he said.

The hybrid, he said, which was researched and introduced in 1965 has equally good yields that could provide future foods.

Mzee Wilson Tallam of Toro Farm in Saboti, who has grown maize since 1972, agrees.

For him the danger lies in the sub-division of land into uneconomical portions due to population pressure, expensive inputs and poor prices for producers.

"For instance last year we sold our maize at Sh900 to Sh1,000 per bag only for the price to shoot later to more than Sh4,000 for the same amount," Mzee Tallam said. This year, he put 60 acres of his farm under maize up from the usual 20 acres. However, he said production in the county had been falling due to increased population.

Trans Nzoia is the most densely populated county in Rift Valley with 328 people per square kilometre. The land sizes are becoming smaller and smaller as the population grows compromising production.

Mzee Tallam said he was not ready to switch to GM seed to yield more bags of maize per acre.

"The seeds we are getting from Kenya Seed are good. For instance my harvest stands at 80 bags of unshelled maize per acre. The harvest is good. There is no need for GMOs," he said.

Production will drop further as more small scale farmers switch to higher income alternative cash crops.

Mr Titus Imayah of Wehoya Farm said growing of bananas and other short-term crops was picking up fast.

Kenya Seed's Busolo said people should end over reliance on maize. "They should diversify to eat other ugali like from millet and sorghum whose seeds we have," he said. However, he said, the company's research teams were ready to go should the Government make a final decision on the GM issue.

Mr Tony Mills, one of the three remaining white farmers in the county, is opposed to GM.

"The GM seeds are not good, they will be harmful to our environment," he said at his farm in Lokitela.

Mr Mills, 66, who has 874 acres, has 130 of them under maize, the third biggest individual supplier of seed maize to Kenya Seed.

But Mr Wilberforce Kisiero, who owns 790 acres with 230 under maize, commented, "The country has no alternative but to introduce GM seeds in the future because we have failed to control population that is ever on the rise."

He thinks that is the only way Kenya will feed its people because GM seeds have a higher yield.

Naivasha MP John Mututho has been leading a crusade against importing GM foods.

And what is Kenya Seed's strategy for avoiding future shortages of seed?

Mr Busolo acknowledged that land sub-division is a threat to both seed production and food.

Other than the Agricultural Development Corporation which has the biggest farms, it was unrealistic for the dwindling acreages to do seed farming.

Seed required 200 metres around the crop to avoid polluted pollination from other crops.

To solve this, the company introduced "Seed Villages" where a group of farmers in the same locality jointly grow seed maize. That way, no farmer lost buffer zone land. Since its introduction, the village acreage has grown from 22,000 acres to 37,000.

The company has also introduced irrigation farming, growing seed maize beyond Trans Nzoia which relies on rain. It has 5,000 acres in Bura (Tana River), Malindi (Kilifi) and Ahero (in Kisumu) which will increase to 9,000 next year.

"We can increase this acreage if the Government invests heavily in irrigation in the Highlands rivers and not in lower ones which sometimes run dry," the company's deputy MD Alfred Busolo said.

To help ease pressure on Kenyan seed in the region, the company has satellite stations in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Studies are underway to open other stations in South Sudan, Puntland and Bandundu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"From the lessons we have learnt, our new strategy is that never, and never again shall we have seed shortage in our country," he said.

The Daily Nation

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