Farming of the white variety has turned out to be a major economic activity in semi-arid areas of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori, Busia, Kisumu, Tharaka Nithi and Meru counties, with the number of contracted farmers standing at 45,000. Farmers are abandoning other crops to grow it, but production per acre remains low. Francis Mureithi spoke to Sylvester Opil Ndeda, a plant breeder and the research and liaison manager at the East African Maltings Limited plant in Molo to find out what farmers are not doing right
Demand for sorghum has surged but the yields per acre are still low, what is the problem?
Farmers are ignoring simple things like land preparation. The seedbed must be well prepared to have fine soil. Sorghum grains are tiny and require 30 millimetres planting depth.
Some farmers bury the seeds and kill them. Soil testing should be done for use of right quantity of fertilisers. Correct spacing should be observed to get the right crop population.
The spacing from one plant to the other should be 25cm and spacing between the row should be 70cm. Farmers should scout pests and diseases regularly. Sorghum should be harvested at the right time and dried well to avoid aflatoxin.
As the main buyers of the grain, what solutions are you offering farmers to increase their yields from four to 15 bags per acre?
We are introducing modern ways of farming from land preparation, fertiliser use and pest control management. We are also developing high-yielding varieties as farmers have depended on two old ones whose yields are low.
With collaboration with our partners, we have released one high-yielding variety in the market. Most common ones are Gadam and Sila, which are low yielding. Most farmers don’t know how to handle their produce after harvest and we are conducting post-harvest training on how to dry and store their produce.
How does one get contracted as a farmer?
If you have 10 acres, you get a direct contract. Farmers with less than 10 acres form groups, register them and when they attain a total acreage of 50, they get a contract.
Those unwilling to join groups are at liberty to engage our contracted aggregators who recruit them and sign a contract to supply the produce.
As a contracted farmer, you are given inputs, seeds and fertilisers on time, besides free advisory services. Farmers receive tips on soil testing, fertiliser usage, diseases and pest control and other modern farming techniques. We help them to get equipment such as threshers for harvesting sorghum.
The utilisation of sorghum is set to double in the next five years from 20,000 to 40,000 metric tonnes. Are ready you for the surplus produce?
We have put adequate measures in place and the setting-up of the Kisumu brewery is one of them. We are talking to other players to come on board to offer alternative market just in case we have surplus sorghum so that they could explore other value-addition options like opening bakeries.
Birds’ invasion poses a threat to production of the crop among smallholder farmers. Do you have a solution to this menace?
We don’t have a direct solution. However, we are having a discussion with farmers to convince them to plant at the same time in their regions so that when it comes to scaring birds, they do it at the same time.
The damage is low unlike when they plant at different stages as individual farmers. Research is ongoing to produce varieties that will produce thorns that will prick birds’ eyes and keep them off to reduce the damage. Agro-chemical companies are also working on a birds’ repellent.