Scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) have stepped up efforts to find a lasting solution to the Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND), even as farmers continue to count losses.
Researchers want seed varieties resistant to the disease made available to farmers within the next one year, according to the institute’s managing director, Dr Ephraim Mukisira.
He said a team of scientists has pitched tent on a 20-hectare site in Naivasha where it is exclusively working on the project. He said once it comes up with varieties, it would multiply them so that over time, they would be provided to farmers.
“By this time, next year, we shall have made great strides towards containing spread of this disease that has reversed the gains the country has made in fighting food insecurity,” said Dr Mukisira.
The disease was first reported in Bomet, Rift Valley in September 2011 before spreading to other parts of the country. Farmers are worried that the country’s staple is particularly under threat, unless the disease is eradicated.
Kenya Federation of Agricultural Producers (Kenfap), Trans Nzoia chairman, Mr William Kimosong, said there are fears that the disease, if not controlled, might wipe out gains made in the agricultural sector.
“Maize is the staple crop in the country and it’s unfortunate that the disease has also been noticed in areas considered to be the country’s grain basket,” he said.
Dr Mukisira said the research is being supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation deliberately identified Naivasha because it is a maize free area and thus not prone to pollution from other fields or seeds.
“The site has less land under maize and there are minimal chances of unwanted materials being blown into the area that has been isolated for the research,” he said.
The managing director said the research centre had identified scientists who have been given specific tasks to address besides sending one of them to Ohio State University, USA to learn about the disease.
“The scientist will be instrumental in pushing this research to the next level as she will lead researchers in the project in further analysis of affected materials in areas where this disease has been reported,” he said.
Dr Mukirisa said the scientist would also visit Rwanda, whose farmers are also grappling with the effects of the disease, to share with its scientists, crucial information on how to contain its spread.
“Rwanda has requested that we send them the scientist to help them unravel the mystery behind this disease that threatens food security, given that it causes up to 100 per cent crop failure,” said Dr Mukisira.
US Agency for International Development’s (USAid) Feed the Future Programme and the World Bank’s Agricultural Productivity Programme are key development partners in Kenya’s quest to come up with seed varieties that are tolerant to the disease.
In the meantime, Dr Mukirisa appealed to farmers to go for good agronomic practices and integrate crops in livestock farming to guarantee them a livelihood from one economic activity in the event one fails.
“There are so many high value traditional crops to assist the affected farmers. Some have been cultivating one type of crop for 40-50 years and are not ready to switch to other crops for a while,” Dr Mukisira observed.
He said such farmers need to adopt other crops that can thrive well in their areas and cited beans, cassava, sorghum, potatoes, and millet as some alternatives that can improve soil fertility before a farmer reverts to growing maize.
The researcher faulted agricultural extension officers saying they do not promote recommended agricultural practices to make inroads in research work meaningful.
“Researchers have no time to go out and train farmers. They are busy in the laboratories and undertaking confined field trials to roll out viable varieties for adoption by farmers,” he said.