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Alfrique Mwana and Angela Mutiso

Farmers Are No Longer Sure Their Crops Will Grow To Maturity

The inconsistency in rainfall patterns as a result of climate change has a big impact on the agricultural sector. It is also difficult for farmers to tell whether the rains will be sufficient for crop development, whether their crops will mature and when the harvest period begins. There are indications that El Nino is in the offing.

A forecast report by Climate Prediction Centre shows that the globe is on a transition to an El Nino state in the second half of 2023. According to the report, the weather in East Africa will be wetter, and May to July, will experience up to 62% of rainfall. If the document is anything to go by, farmers are at risk of losing their crops in the farms before harvest. If El-Nino does not occur and all factors remain constant, harvesting season will commence in July, and the short rains will begin in October. However, climate change pundits say it is unlikely that the harvests will manage food deficit problems in the country. The government has already announced that there is a maize shortage. The scarcity has resulted in high demand for maize products leading to sky-rocketing prices of maize flour.

The meteorological department says an occurrence of El Nino will challenge farmers and disturb the supply and demand chain. Dr. Richard Muita, Director of Climate services at the Meteorological department, says that although the rainfall experienced in many parts of the country is within the normal range, prolonged rainfall will cause further losses, especially  considering how much farmers have invested.

“Crops have different growth stages, each stage requires certain weather conditions whether it is rainfall, soil moisture, temperature or relative humidity, wind conditions or solar radiation….the critical factor is the availability of rainfall and if the rains continue crops will grow quickly and not have time to mature, flower, form the seeds that are later consumed as food,” says Dr. Muita.

Weather experts contend that the amount of rain experienced and the short-rains later in the year will not be sufficient to erase the effects of drought. The situation, is worsened by the floods that washed away animals and crops in different parts of the country. Despite the loss of animals, pastoralists have an advantage over crop farmers because they depend on forage which grows faster with minimal water and can survive in harsh conditions like an El Nino. Dr. Muita says animals that survived the floods have enough forage but calls on residents to find ways to store forage for dry seasons.

Fredrick Kimwilu, an environmental and climate change expert, says farmers must now shift their focus to short-term and drought-resistant crops to mitigate any losses due to intermittent rainfall. He further emphasizes the need for farmers to engage in several enterprises within their farms, for-example:- inter-cropping, planting early perennial crops that criss-cross the seasons, harvesting and storing water, and applying agricultural technology to grow their crops to build their resilience.

Zachary Aduda, a researcher in food security, avers that erratic weather conditions have necessitated people to appreciate traditional foods that have previously been regarded as food for the poor. Consumption of foods that include vegetables like terere (Amaranth), Osuga (black nightshade), mrenda, cassava and leaves, arrow roots, sweet potatoes, and yams are on the rise as Kenyans seek alternatives to maize, wheat, and rice.

As these crops strive to survive in-the-wake of climate change, Aduda says indigenous vegetables like terere, osuga, sagaa, and others grow like weeds and are resistant to harsh weather conditions. Moreover, these vegetables are easy to grow, mature fast, and are high in nutrients when cooked. These crops can help guard against high malnutrition rates, especially in ASAL regions. Hellen Wanjugu, an agriculturalist based in Nyeri, says indigenous vegetables’ are high in nutrients such as calcium, manganese, iron, Potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and zinc. 

Aduda laments that there is an inadequate effort by the government and other stakeholders to support resilience interventions around the production of indigenous foods. He says there is too much focus on fertilizers and genetically modified organisms GMOs and little or no emphasis on the difficulties farmers face accessing and multiplying indigenous seeds.

“Every ethnic group in Kenya boasts of its traditional crops and vegetables in line with the climatic conditions of their region but smallholder farmers, who are the backbone of our food system, have a problem accessing the indigenous seeds they so urgently need,” he says.

According to data by the Ministry of Agriculture, smallholder farmers in the country account for between 70-80 percent, and their combined output meets an estimated 75 percent of domestic food needs of the country. However these farmers rely on an informal seed system that make access to seeds difficult unlike the traditional methods.

In those days, farmers saved seeds and shared them among themselves so they were in control of seed distribution and would grow native food crops and promote Kenyan agricultural biodiversity. The enactment of Seed and plant varieties act 2012 stopped any exchange, sharing, or selling of uncertified and unregistered seeds.

Farmers are required to purchase seeds each planting season, this has increased the cost of inputs beyond reach. Hellen Wanjugu says the seed law has bestowed seed handling in the hands of multinational corporations, who are slowly dictating what farmers can grow because of the high seed prices.

This has resulted in increased uptake of exotic vegetables like cabbages and kales. Wanjugu says a UN research shows that while more than 7,000 wild plants documented wild worldwide, were either grown or collected, less than 150 of these species are commercialized. Out of these wild plant species, 30 plant species meet the world’s food needs.

“Today, food recipes for indigenous species are available from reputable institutions and organizations such as FAO. Native species taste much better than exotic plants and are more nutritious, but farmers cannot fully lean on indigenous plant species to meet our food needs,” she emphasizes.

The reality of climate change calls for behaviour change in the operations within the agricultural sector and channelling of resources to benefit priority areas in the nation. Equally, Citizens need to shift from reliance on maize, wheat, and rice to indigenous foods that are available. Traditional foods have scientifically proven to be healthier compared to processed foods.

Nevertheless, Aduda says the government has not exploited the potential of indigenous foods to improve food security in the country especially in the ASAL regions. Climate change has become a harsh reality, and its impact on the agricultural sector is evident. The most affected people are farmers and pastoralists in the Arid and semi-arid areas, posing a challenge to the fight against food scarcity in the county.

Kenya relies on three main crops; maize, rice, and wheat which are 90% dependent on rainfall for their growth. Nonetheless, Dr. Muita indicates that rain has improved the availability of water to farmers for irrigation post the rainy season. Climate change experts are now calling on the government to prepare to purchase food from farmers for storage and to cushion them from losses. Kimwilu states that contrary to the earlier predictions by the meteorological department, rains were sufficient to boost crop development.

“…If the government fails to purchase foodstuff from farmers, they will be forced to sell their products cheaply to avoid thus incurring more loses,” said Kimwilu.

Although the rain cycle was within the normal range, the country is not off the hook yet following the adverse effects of drought; there is a likelihood that we can experience food shortage, especially in the ASAL Counties after floods washed away livestock. According to Kimwilu, the double tragedy suffered increases the residents’ vulnerability, and therefore the government can prepare for any eventuality by stocking sufficient food in its granaries. Kimwilu says that temperature changes are also likely to cause crop diseases and infestation by insects like army-worms and stalk-borers which can affect the yield.

The debate in the country about adopting genetically modified foods as a recourse to food insecurity is driving focus from the real issues that are affecting farmers. Although, genetically modified seeds are said to have more yields, the flip-side is that its seeds cannot be regenerated thus it might increase the cost of farming beyond what the local farmers can afford.

This might make farming a rich man’s business. Many years ago, government employed agricultural extension officers who were always prompt, to train farmers in seed preservation techniques and supported them in overcoming dependence on rain water. Aduda stresses that the reintroduction of extension officers who can use indigenous knowledge to support farmers and link them to the markets is the silver bullet the country needs to improve food security.

Commencing of the rain in March gave a ray of hope as the country had experienced the worst drought. This affected 23 counties that is: Kilifi, Mandera, Marsabit, Samburu, Turkana, Wajir, Isiolo, Kitui and Kajiado, Garissa, Lamu, Narok, Tana River, Makueni, Tharaka-Nithi, Baringo, Laikipia, Meru, Taita Taveta, West-Pokot, Nyeri, Embu and Kwale.

This drought led to scarcity of food and water, and to malnutrition. Many people and livestock also died as a result.  

Alfrique Mwana ([email protected]) is a communication expert. Angela Mutiso ([email protected]) is the Editorial Consultant of the Accountant Journal.


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