Heaps of dry maize stalks from last season’s harvest litter the sun-baked farms of Kathekakai, Vota village in Machakos County.
However, amid the dryness and apparent lifelessness, there is a green bed of beans, capsicums, sweet potatoes and vegetables nurtured through drip irrigation fed from a borehole sunk in the compound of Elizabeth Nyamai.
Nyamai has been contracted by the Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organisation in Katumani to grow breeder’s seeds from a newly released canning bean variety, KAT SW-12 (Kenya Mali).
Her farm has been regularly inspected by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) for certification when the beans were flowering, forming pods and at maturity in three months.
“I was given 4kg of breeder’s seeds to multiply. I hope to harvest about 180kg in 30 days,” explains Nyamai. The research organisation guarantees market at Sh90 a kilo.
The bean seeds released early this month, but are yet to be gazetted, were developed by the University of Nairobi and the research organisation, with support from the Bio-Innovate Project of the International Livestock Research Institute and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. An acre of the new beans offers 600kg, unlike the others 400kg.
Both the research organisation and the university have contracted farmers to grow seeds. Esther Wangari, 56, from Matigari village, Njoro in Nakuru County is among those contracted by the university in October last year to multiply the beans for the pilot project.
“I was given 25kg of Kenya Cheupe (MN6) variety to plant on an acre. I harvested 270kg during the short rains between October and December. I sell my beans to a canning farm in Njoro at Sh70 a kilo,” she explains.
“This variety is taller, has uniform pods, roots are deeper and spread better as compared to Mexican 142.”
For many years, the canning industry in Kenya has relied on Mexican 142 variety, which has become susceptible to drought and diseases such as rust, anthracnose, angular leaf spot and Bean Common Mosaic Virus.
The diseases have made farmers and seed companies stop producing the grains leaving processing firms to import canning beans from Ethiopia.
“We have not had enough quality beans. Annually, we require 200,000kg of beans,” says Mwangi Njiru, a senior manager at TruFoods.
“We get what remains after Ethiopia exports resulting in 10 to 20 per cent loss.”
Currently, Trufoods, has contracted 28 farmers from Nakuru County in Solai, Bahati and Kabazi areas who produce 40,000kg of canned beans annually.
“We are buying from Sh60 to Sh65 a kilo. We are working on contracting more farmers in formal groups to raise our production capacity to 400,000kg using the new beans.”
Njoro Canning in Nakuru County has also been importing canning beans from Ethiopia for the last 15 years.
“With the imports, we are not assured of the quality since we buy from middlemen on the Moyale border,” explains Evanson Njuguna, the operations manager.
Dr Davis Karanja, the national coordinator grain legume and the principal investigator at the Bio-Innovate Project, says the new varieties will be multiplied in plenty before farmers can have them.
“We are expecting about 300kg of grains after which we will contract around 50 to 100 farmers in Machakos, Kirinyaga, Embu and Narok to grow them.”
Researchers from the research organisation have released KAT-SW 12 (Kenya Mali) and KAT-SW-13 (Tamutamu), with MN6 (Kenya Cheupe), KCB 13-02 (Kenya Mamboleo), KCB 13-09 (Kenya Salama) and KCB 13-11 (KenStar) released by the University of Nairobi, with Ethiopia releasing Navy 87 (Awash 2) variety.
Prof Paul Kimani, a bean breeder and the Head of Plant Breeding Programme at the University of Nairobi is worried that despite the technology and availability of new varieties, Kenya still prefers to import than invest in seed multiplication.