Match agriculture policy with action to spur seed uptake
By BIMAL KANTARIA
Anyone who has interacted with smallholder farmers in Kenya knows their livelihoods start and end with availability of seeds. With availability I mean the right quantity, at the right time and at affordable rates.
The seed situation has been harrowing for virtually all farmers. From fake seeds flooding the market to inconsistent supplies that have affected the planting seasons for farmers, the spiral effects have been catastrophic. Yet the country and the policy makers sit on their laurels oblivious of the damage this is consistently having to our food production and food security.
Our levels of imports are growing by the day. But vast areas of our land remain virgin, untouched, uncultivated even with the numerous potential it has. Let us put it into perspective: More than 1.3 million Kenyan farmers do not have any maize seed to plant and around 3.7 million people in Kenya are food insecure.
Currently, more than 2.1 million people are malnourished. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the US, Europe, and other donors, the country is experiencing its fourth hunger crisis in the last decade. The underlying factors that lead to hunger are not new: lack of infrastructure and unprecedented drought.
While emergency food aid prevents widespread starvation, it does nothing to prevent communities from becoming caught in a continuous cycle of crisis, rescue, and deprivation. This calls for a long lasting plan that will bring to a stop this culture of food insecurity.
The demand for seeds in 13 countries in Africa combined, Kenya included, is around 0.5 million tonnes, with the supply being only 0.2 million tonnes.
Shortage of the foundation seed in Kenya, the original seed from which the other seeds are created, is leading to a shortage in stock of seeds. Over 60 per cent of maize grown in Kenya is grown from hybrid seeds. Good quality, certified seeds are expensive, and only a few Kenyan farmers can afford them according to Ministry of Agriculture statistics.
These seeds have better yield than the seeds most farmers can afford. As a result, a lot of farmers end up using retained seeds, which have yields of 25-30 per cent lower than the yield of hybrid seeds in the first harvest. In harvests after that, yield tends to drop 50 per cent.
It is even more heart-breaking that even with the many number of international research institutions that Kenya houses and many private companies like Elgon Kenya who have dedicated their operations to breeding high yielding, stress responsive seed varieties, a paltry one per cent of Kenyan farmers know or actually use these seeds. This, even as the farmers wallow in poverty. Yet even with the quagmire, hope abounds.
A vibrant, competitive and well-functioning seed industry can become the channel through which new seed research and development can flow to farmers. Such developments would include newly hybridised varieties for crops such as millet, sorghum, sunflower, and vegetables, drought escaping varieties, new types of seed treatments to protect the inherent yield of the seed, seeds developed specifically to meet industrial uses such as those of oil processors and seeds that have been genetically modified to tolerate drought, escape damage from pests, and tolerate herbicide application.
Without a healthy and innovative seed industry the benefits of these technologies will not accrue to most farmers. Kenya has great strengths upon which to build, most notably hard working farmers, a strong cadre of scientists, and established institutions.
The challenge for Kenya will be to look ahead in a visionary and proactive way to realise the immense potential that a stronger seed industry promises, both nationally and regionally. Matching policy with action is enough to change the seed situation in the country for good.
The government’s good will in opening up millions of acreage under irrigation deserves a pat on the back, but such land is as good as barren if the right seeds are not planted.
The government should therefore provide incentives to encourage active participation of the private sector in seed breeding, production and distribution to spur as much uptake as possible. It can be done because others have done it, and so can we.
The writer is Managing Director, Elgon Kenya
Courtesy Standard Media.