Researchers at Egerton University are working on an ambitious project to enhance sorghum production.
The project comes at a time when more than 1.7 million Kenyans are facing starvation due to poor rains and dwindling harvests of traditional staples such as maize and beans due to erratic weather conditions.
Sorghum, cassava and millet are some of the crops classified as ‘orphaned’ and which have been neglected by farmers due to lack of certified seeds.
The crops have remained unattractive to most farmers yet they have high nutritional value and could be the answer to malnutrition in arid areas.
The researchers say the new varieties will be drought resistant and high-yielding, making them ideal for arid and semi-arid areas.
Most farmers planting sorghum use previous harvests as seeds, resulting in poor yields.
“Our project is aimed at identifying sorghum varieties that could be put to industrial use and developing hybrid seeds that farmers could grow to improve their incomes and livelihoods,” says the lead researcher, Dr Erick Cheruiyot.
Speaking to the Seeds of Gold, Dr Cheruiyot said the project, which was started in July 2011, also aims at promoting the post-harvest handling of sorghum and processing besides linking farmers to sustainable markets.
“Sorghum farmers in Kenya will only enhance their production if they are sure that there is a ready market for their products,” says Dr Cheruiyot, who is a specialist in crop physiology and a senior lecturer in the Department of Crops, Horticulture and Soils.
The team has identified high-yielding varieties to boost production.
“Some of the varieties that are undergoing tests could yield six tonnes per acre and this is a big improvement from the two tonnes by the variety the farmers are using,” said Dr Cheruiyot. The researchers are collaborating with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi–Arid Tropics, an agricultural research organisation from India.
Egerton University Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Extension, Prof Gowland Mwangi, says the identification of the varieties was a big breakthrough in the fight against hunger in the country.
He says the university had signed an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute to carry out comprehensive research in seeds and animal husbandry.
It’s also working with the Bomet County government to rehabilitate dams and other water sources.
“Our researchers are working with the county government to ensure that the dams are well rehabilitated and hold water for a long time to help residents increase food production through irrigation,” said Prof Mwangi.
A similar project is being undertaken with the Uaso Nyiro Development Authority for 10 counties in Northern Kenya.
“Apart from helping these counties in the Northern Kenyan to manage their water resources well, the university is also helping them develop disease-tolerant crops such as cassava, millet and sorghum,” he said.
At the same time, Dr Cheruiyot said an engineer from the Agricultural Engineering Department at Njoro Campus was developing a sorghum thrasher to help farmers reap maximum profits from their crops.
“This machine, once in the market, will ensure cost-effective threshing and hygienic handling of sorghum grain,” Dr Cheruiyot says.
Sorghum farmers will reap from the multi-billion beer industry if brewers adopt a new policy spelt out during the 2013/14 financial estimates that promotes its use as an ingredient in making cheaper alcoholic beverages.
The Cabinet Secretary in charge of The Treasury, Mr Henry Rotich, exempted beer made from millet and cassava from excise duty.
The researchers say the new policy will stimulate agricultural activity and provide a ready market.
This could translate into high returns for brewers.
“The huge amounts spent by the beer companies to import barley could be channelled to research to improve production,” he says.
Dr Cheruiyot a variety of sorghum that produces a lot of sugar is used in production of ethanol.
In Nyanza, cylinder maker East African Spectre will this year start using sorghum following a shortage of molasses growing sorghum owing to the shortage of molasses. Last year farmers from the region earned Sh480 million from the crop.
In Rift Valley, the acreage under sorghum increased from 9,960 to 13,677 hectares last year, while production improved from 18,740 to 146,180 bags.