The County Government of Kitui is calling on farmers to shift their focus to growing neglected traditional crops, which hold an untapped potential, as part of national food-security strategies.
The paradigm shift is based on local food market sales of drought-resistant crops such as sorghum and finger millet whose prices have doubled over the years.
In Kitui, a kilogramme of sorghum fetches Sh. 120 whereas maize is sold at Sh. 55 per kilo.
Due to depressed rainfall occasioned by climate, maize is no longer a priority for most farmers due to its low returns.
Speaking to Kenya News Agency in Kitui on Friday, a seasoned Crops Officer, Joy Ochieng’ said that the Ministry of Agriculture has rolled farmer educational programmes to augment extension services to help farmers make informed decisions on which crops to plant.
“Kitui and its environs experienced minimal rainfall during the long March-May rain season. The amount of rainfall received was incapable of sustaining crops such as maize. There is need to shift our focus to sorghum, finger millet, cow peas and green grams,” said Ochieng’.
She said that the goal of the educative programmes is to make the nutritious indigenous plants that are raised in the home gardens or that grow in the fields, forests and common lands more nutritious than they already are as well as being more productive and resilient to drought.
“The aim is to improve the diets and livelihoods of the rural communities in Mwingi as a whole,” said the Crops Officer.
Ochieng’ noted that there is need to start harnessing science, technology and innovation to boost and stimulate rural communities to meet food and nutrition security.
So far, at the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) laboratory in Nairobi, genetic analysis is advanced on 19 species, including finger millet, spider plant, cashew, Mobola plum, African locust (Neré), Uapaca kirkiana and Marula.
The aim, according to International Council for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) scientist, Prasad Hendre, is the “targeted improvement in nutrition, yield, climate resilience, stress tolerance, nutrient use efficiency and other traits.”
Hendre says that the end result will be improved varieties for smallholders and sumptuous dietary diversity on farms and in markets.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are high rates of protein-calorie malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency primarily iron, zinc and vitamin A.
Caroline Makena, a nutritionist at Mwingi Level 4 Hospital said that stunting is a malnutrition indicator, which is a manifestation of presence of chronic food insecurity problems.
According to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey of 2014 (KDHS 2014), approximately 46 per cent of the children of under five years of age in Kitui have stunted growth against a national prevalence rate of 26 per cent. Of this number, 13 per cent were reported to suffer from severe stunting.
Ms. Makena noted that frequent droughts in the region have made it difficult to have proper water access and availability, a situation that compromises hygienic food preparation procedures.
She observed that the consequences of malnutrition and ill health particularly among the children will eventually have an adverse impact on their future potential.
“It will have a negative impact on the cognitive development abilities of the child thus affecting their performance in education. Moreover, economic productivity of such individuals is highly compromised,” said Makena.
As a result, she said that low-income communities experience high incidences of low birth weight, infant mortality, anemia and iodine deficiency and a growing incidence of chronic nutritional disorders, such as diabetes, obesity and cardio-vascular disease.
Ochieng’ observed that improving farm yields is an obvious and significant part of the answer; however, low yields, low nutritional content, environmental stress, difficulties in propagation, harvest losses, disease, and high labor costs are factors that limit agricultural success.
Through the farmer educative forums, the crops officer said that farmers will be able to grow more nutritious, higher yielding and more resilient crops in the face of climate change, drought and pests.
By Yobesh Onwong’a