Ininda, the scientist with a knack for turning every seed into gold

Saturday May 17 2014

Dr Jane Ininda has produced and commercialised 26 different maize strains and 180 other crop varieties with fellow scientists, which are planted in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and South Africa, and she is not about to stop.

Dr Jane Ininda has produced and commercialised 26 different maize strains and 180 other crop varieties with fellow scientists, which are planted in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and South Africa, and she is not about to stop.  

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Soft-spoken and humble, you can easily surmise that she is a no huckster, but just an earnest, passionate scientist, keen on making a difference.

Dr Jane Ininda is a plant breeder and has been doing the work for 30 years in a career straddling science and agriculture worlds.

The researcher has produced and commercialised 26 different maize strains on her own and in partnership with other scientists, released over 180 improved crop varieties.

These hybrids provide different tastes, give resistance to crops and pests and result in increased yields. Apart from coming up with the new breeds, the wide networking, which her job as a programme officer with Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) and founder of the Maize Breeders Network for Eastern and Southern Africa (it also incorporates rice, beans, cassava, sorghum and millet), have seen her add value to the lives of farmers all over the continent.

Ininda cites a project in land-scarce Rwanda where farmers sought to grow bush beans in a way that they could maximise space.

The experiment took place in Ruhengeri, a region in the northern part of the country and the resultant seed ended up spreading across the country.

“We introduced some bean varieties, which grow upwards, produce more yield and take less space. You just stake it on a stick and it produces four times more than the regular type. Now it has transformed the food situation. This means that Rwanda has four times the amount of food it had; families there are even more food secure than Kenya.”

The agriculturalist also cites a farmer in Githunguri, who had given up on her millet farm. “We started doing some trials and if you go there now, it’s different. Before, she was harvesting barely half a basket of millet; now she is harvesting six. Before we went, she believed that she had been cursed.”

Ininda’s main role at Agra is to offer technical expertise and oversee the authorisation of new seed strains in conjunction with other scientists. Her zest in seeing productive farms was born out of the precarious food situation she had faced as a child.

Her parents were peasant farmers in the dry Mbeere District. “I remember as I was growing up that there wasn’t enough food; we used traditional methods and you could never be sure there would be enough food in the year.”

The alumna of Kaaga Girls High School, therefore, chose to study agriculture once she joined the University of Nairobi for her undergraduate course, to find a way to help her community get more food. She then proceeded into the world of research, focusing on wheat at a Kenya Agricultural Research Institute station in Njoro between 1983 and 1985 before returning to her alma mater for a Master’s degree, where her focus was on amaranth.

The scientist attained her PhD in Plant Breeding at Iowa State University in the US, where she focused on maize seed.

“I found maize streak virus had ravaged the crop in the then Central, Rift Valley and Eastern provinces. That is why I chose to focus on it.”

Her efforts have led to the existence of crop varieties that provide higher yields and hence increased production. “This way, the goal towards food security is made more viable on a national level, and farmers can get higher profits from their crops at individual level,” she says.

Apart from maize, wheat and soya bean breeding are also her pet specialisations.

Ininda worked on getting early maturing varieties because of drought. Many of the hybrids she introduced have been adapted by farmers and are stocked by commercial firms such as East African Seed Company, Olerai Seed Company, Dryland Seed Company, Freshco, Leldet Seed Company and in Uganda, Victoria Seed Company.

“They are resistant to diseases, are higher yielding, have good taste and some are early maturing,” she says.

Prior to Agra, the scientist worked at Kari for 24 years. “They hired me to scale up what I was doing in Kari, and do it in other countries.”

Ininda works in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa.

Agra provides training for researchers, research grants, and linkages between research institutions and commercial seed companies. Does she consider herself a passionate person? She laughs.

“My career as a plant breeder is something I enjoy so much. When I was young, I was very accurate at measuring where to plant the seeds and my parents preferred me to be the one doing the work as they would always come out in the right order. I actually liked agriculture, and I didn’t even think I would do it professionally.”

Academic achievements

As a graduate student in Iowa, she received the university’s C. R. Weber Award in recognition for outstanding achievement. She was named the Best Scientist of the Year at Kari in 2003, and won a two-year fellowship in the G&D Pilot fellowship programme in 2005, which aims at enhancing the careers of women crop scientists.

Ininda, however, downplays the high-powered research, elaborate experiments and academic achievements that she has spent a lot of time in, evidenced by the over 30 published research papers in journals, stating her work as she sees it. “That’s what I do and have always been doing; helping farmers get food.”

She emphasises that receiving information from farmers is key to helping her determine what experiments and projects she will take up.

“We meet farmers and they tell us issues on the farm. They want maize that can be processed easily, tastes good and can grow in their areas. You have to work with them. That way, you’ll always be up to date with what’s going on.”

Looking at the current situation of food security, Ininda mentions the impact climate change has had on local farmers.

“It has caused the weather to change and we tend to have drier seasons. We, therefore, need to focus on drought-tolerant and early maturing crops. We look at long-term aspects of things, to tailor our research to fit the present. You can’t tell farmers to use the same seeds they were using 40 years ago.”

Symbol of quality

The scientist’s improved and certified breeds, however, go for a higher price than regular seeds, retailing at Sh150 per kilo as compared to uncertified regular seeds, which would sell at Sh30 per kilo in the market.

Ininda, however, says that the difference is vast between the two. “What they sell is not seed but grain. The word seed is a symbol of quality and potential. Improved seed is always expensive because it has to be produced and packaged hygienically and ensure it meets the standards. It must be certified by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis).”

For products so cutting edge, it would appear that the seeds are only to be found in exclusive and reserved institution. This is actually not so.

“Farmers can find the seed at their local agro-dealers where the seed companies stock them. For farmers to know which variety they need in their village and region, they can go to their local agro-dealer and get the information or get in touch with Kephis,” Ininda says.

In addition, farmers can also send an SMS to Kephis to inquire what variety would work best in their area. To receive an SMS for the recommended maize varieties in their division, “They go to ‘Write message’ on their handsets, type MAIZE#DIVISION (Maize#Lanet) and send the message to 20354 after which they will receive the details of seed varieties,” she says.

Some farmers want quirky preferences, Ininda says on a light note. “In Uganda, they tell us that the aroma and taste of the rice is the most important thing; in Malawi they say they need bitter tasting cassava with a very pronounced flavour.”

As for the magic that has enabled her succeed in plants innovation, she cites determination, passion and hard work as the key attributes, as well as encouragement from parents and family.