Like many of his neighbours, Mr Jonathan Musila from Kiboko, Makueni County, has been hit hard by drought for the better part of his farming life.
When we visited him last week, we were welcomed to a spectacle of withered maize crops, emancipated cattle and depleted ponds, an indication of the harsh environment he lives in.
As we toured his seven-acre land, Mr Musila told us a sad story. Last year he lost five acres of maize to drought.
“It was a toll on my family because we depend entirely on maize farming for livelihood,” he said. But Mr Musila and many other maize farmers from semi-arid areas in Kenya now have a reason to smile, following on-going development of new genetically modified maize variety.
The drought-tolerant, pest-resistant, fast-maturing MON87460 and MON810 maize varieties being developed and tested by scientists at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute at the Kiboko Research Centre under confined field trials (CFT) promise reliable, stable and high-yields.
Dr Murenga Mwimali, the Country Coordinator at the Water Efficiency Maize for Africa, a public/private partnership — led by the Kenyan-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Howard G. Buffett Foundation and USAid — said they were at the final stages of testing the crop.
He said once it was approved for commercialisation, the variety would put a smile on farmers’ faces.
“This drought-tolerant maize variety can withstand low moisture content in the soil or low rainfall amounts and still do well,” said Dr Murenga during harvesting of the drought-tolerant maize variety at Kiboko.
He said the variety was also suitable for both subsistence and commercial purposes, considering its maturity time and productivity.
“The old breed yields less than 10 bags an acre, while with the new variety a farmer’s harvest per acre can range from 30 to 50 bags per acre in dry areas,” Dr Charles Kariuki, the KARI Kiboko Research Centre Director, told Seeds of Gold.
Dr Kariuki said the variety took four to five months to mature unlike traditional ones which go up to nine months.
It has been undergoing field trials since 2010 and will be available to farmers after undergoing necessary approval authorisation by regulatory agencies such as the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS).
Dr Kariuki said the new variety was expected to alleviate hunger and poverty and transform drought-prone areas into bread baskets.
“We will work round the clock to ensure that we come up with a variety that will stabilise the household food production and, in the long-term, the income of smallholder families,” he said.
He said Kenya was a drought-prone country, making farming a risky venture for millions of smallholder farmers who rely on rainfall to water their crops.
“Climate change will only worsen the problem. Like drought, insects present another challenge for smallholder maize farmers in Kenya, who have little or no resources to effectively manage them,” he said.
The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) project aims to give smallholder farmers seeds that are resilient and more productive.
Once approved by KEPHIS and other regulators, the drought- and pest- resistant varieties will be distributed to farmers through seed companies, with African Agricultural Technology Foundation as the coordinating agency.
A similar project is running in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.