Kenya imports more than 80 per cent of edible oils despite having vast and suitable agro-ecologies for the production of crops such as sunflower.
Sunflower seed is a source of high-quality vegetable oil. In Kenya, the sunflower plant grows in regions receiving 500-750mm of rainfall with moderately fertile soils.
The crop takes three to four months to mature depending on the variety, after which its seeds are harvested and pressed to obtain sunflower oil.
Regions where sunflower performs well include Bungoma, Homa Bay, Kakamega, Meru and parts of North Rift and the Coast.
Even though improved and hybrid sunflower seed varieties with high oil content and high-yield per acre are available in the market, expanded sunflower production acreage is yet to be seen.
Some high-performing sunflower varieties realised through research efforts by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation and Kenya Seed Company include H008, H893, H8938, Kenya Fedha, Kenya Shaba and Rekord.
As happens with cotton, farmers are unwilling to expand sunflower production acreages mainly due to lack of immediate market for harvested seeds yet huge market and need for sunflower oil exists even within the farming communities.
However, providing extraction machines within the production areas can spur increased production.
Farmers who belong to co-operatives or groups can be supported through grants or loans to purchase and install small or medium-scale sunflower oil extraction machines.
These farmers would then extract oil from their harvested seeds for home use or pack and sell the excess to improve household incomes. This would greatly lower the cost of living among most rural households through budget cuts from daily purchase of cooking oil.
In addition, the service fee charged for sunflower oil extraction would be an income to the co-operative/farmer groups.
Furthermore, micro and small-scale sunflower oil seed producers in Kenya can be advised to form a cluster, invest in common facilities to store, clean, extract sunflower oil, package and take joint marketing actions to enhance the productivity and competitiveness of the business.
This would create employment for skilled youths to work with the sunflower extraction machines as well as increase competitiveness for the quality of sunflower oil products.
The by-product after sunflower oil extraction is known as sunflower seedcake or meal. The cake is rich in protein (30 per cent), crude fibre (27-31 per cent) and is an excellent feed for dairy cattle, chickens, pigs and rabbits.
The nutritious sunflower seedcake would be a valuable feed supplement especially in situations where pasture becomes inadequate in the sunflower production areas.
Moreover, sunflower is insect-pollinated and attracts honeybees. Farmers could use the opportunity to establish apiaries for honey production.
Increased bee population due to abundance of sunflowers will also enhance biodiversity.
In conclusion, expanded sunflower production would lead to a more devolved sunflower oil subsector, which would improve the livelihoods and welfare of relatively poor rural farming households in Kenya.
Wasonga is a PhD student, University of Helsinki [email protected]