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Egerton University develops an array of climate smart seeds

Egerton University in collaboration with private and public industry stakeholders have developed high-yielding, drought and disease-resistant crop varieties while simultaneously stepping up efforts to train farmers to embrace innovative practices as a way of coping with climate change.

Egerton University’s Director for Agro-Science Park Prof. Paul Kimurto noted that due to climate change, pests and diseases that were absent or rare have become rampant thereby affecting yields and resulting in losses to the farmers.

A Food Science student from Egerton University at a Supermarket in Nakuru City introduces sorghum bread to customers. Photo by Jane Ngugi

Prof. Kimurto indicated that with the climate change realities experienced, the University and its partners have endeavored to research and avail varieties adaptable to nature’s climatic vagaries.

“Climate change has become a threat to food security the world over. Its effects include unpredictable rains, leading to decreased yields and increased production costs. Unless we help our farmers embrace climate-smart agriculture, production will continue to dwindle, leading to deceased incomes, job losses and hunger,” he explained.

Among the high yielding, disease and drought resistant varieties released to the market by the institution include Egerton Mbaazi M1, Mbaazi M2 Mbaazi 3 and Mbaazi M4) pigeon pea seeds, 29 new cassava varieties, Tasha, Ciankui and Chelalang bean varieties that are all suitable for warm areas and Nyota and Mwangaza groundnuts seeds.

Others are new sorghum varieties EUS 130, EUS1, EU-SS-10 and ‘EU-SS-11 finger millets (Snapping green) and chickpeas (Saina ka1).

In researching and developing the climate smart seeds, Egerton University has been collaborating with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi–Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) Community Action Research Project (CARP+) and Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organization (KALRO).

Other partners include the Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture and Agribusiness Management (CESAAM), East African Breweries Limited (EABL), Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), the MasterCard Foundation and Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra).

“There should be sustained innovation in drought-resistant seed varieties, environment friendly practices and better post-harvest management to reduce losses. We have also been empowering farmers to make informed decisions such as planting at the right time and the right crop,” says Prof. Kimurto.

According to the don the use of climate-smart agriculture innovations and technology is often limited to large scale farmers.

“Knowledge dissemination to small scale farmers is critical,” he adds.

“The groundnut varieties developed by the University, according to Kimurto, are offering farmers 20-25 bags per acre of unshelled nuts if good husbandry is done. They do well in hot, dry areas like Turkana, where farmers normally don’t harvest much.

He added that the seeds can also be grown in dry parts of Nyanza (south), western and eastern. Besides providing the seeds, Kimurto said farmers were trained on crop husbandry that included planting 30kg of groundnuts per acre instead of 25kg.

The university initially offered the drought-resistant Tasha, Ciankui and Chelalang beans to 100 farmers in Nyandarua, Uasin Gishu and Nakuru counties.

The Agro-Science Park Director says the beans were released after thorough research and in response to climate change that has made many places warmer.

He says the hybrid varieties produce 20 to 30 beans in each pod, unlike the other beans, which offer about half.

“These varieties also cook faster, thus one saves fuel and time. They also have less gas unlike the typical beans and are enriched with higher levels of zinc and iron,” noted the Director

Through Cassava Value Chain Upgrading (CVCU) project for secure food, nutrition, income and resilience of smallholder farmers in the arid and semi-arid lands of Nakuru County, the university has incorporated 6,000 small holder farmers in Njoro, Lower Subukia and Solai Sub Counties.

CVCU Principal Investigator Professor Richard Mulwa says rural communities in the targeted areas have benefited from the value addition chain training since the project is engaging in market-oriented agriculture, where cassava growers are linked to industrial manufacturers.

Prof. Mulwa who is also the varsity’s acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Administration, Planning and Development, indicates that the general objective of the project is to contribute to improved food, nutrition and income security of smallholder farmers through innovations in the cassava value chain.

“We have developed 29 cassava varieties out of which 7 varieties mature within six months. Egerton University’s Food Science Department has been mainstreamed to work with farmers particularly women and youth groups in value addition. The department is working on an animal feed formula that incorporates Acacia pods, the infamous Mathenge (Prosopis Juliflora) weed with cassava as a base. This skill will later be transferred to farmers.”

The University has also established 9 cassava varieties sites in the three Sub Counties of Njoro, Lower Subukia and Solai.

According to the Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor, despite cassavas’ capacity to withstand climate shocks, its production faces challenges particularly from the destructive Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD).

Prof. Mulwa says progress has been made in the fight against CBSD, including the identification of a Tanzanian variety of cassava that is resistant to the disease.

He reveals that five varieties have been identified that are best suited in the targeted regions in terms of yield, fast maturity and low cyanide levels.

“We are now in the process of transferring the resistance genes of the Tanzanian variety to the locally adapted breeds using molecular marker-assisted techniques. These new varieties will be a gem to farmers once certified for bulking and distribution,” the Principal Investigator points out.

He indicated that towards making the initiative a success story, the University is breeding varieties that are resistant to cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease that will be distributed to women and youth groups. The conventional cassava takes 10 years to breed (research and trials before bulk distribution to farmers for planting), but the scientist hopes the new variety will take half the time.

The don said the programme seeks to increase average production for subsistence farmers from 2.5 metric tonnes per acre to 7 metric tonnes, and for pre-commercial farmers from 5 metric tonnes to 10 metric tonnes per acre.

Over 2000 farmers in Makueni through ICRISAT have adopted the Egerton Mbaazi 1, 2 and 3 improved seed variety to ramp up pigeon farming in the region and address food and nutrition security in the county.

Mr Bernard Towett, a senior agronomist and seed system specialist, works with Egerton University to contract farmers to grow seed varieties developed by researchers.

“So far we have contracted over 50 farmers whom each have between 0 to 10 acres of land to grow the pigeon pea varieties developed by Egerton University, and after the harvest, we buy back the seeds at Ksh 100 per kilogram,” said Mr Towett.

Mr Towett observes that over reliance on traditional legume varieties has denied farmers high production and improved incomes, a situation he said had been aggravated by limited research by local research institutions. He says getting seeds for the drought-tolerant crops has been a big challenge in Kenya and that pigeon peas have been neglected for a while.

The new high yielding seed varieties mature earlier at four months and are more resistant to pests and diseases when compared to the local variety that takes up to 10 months.  This enables at least three harvests per season as compared to the traditional variety that experiences terminal drought due to late maturing,” states the seed specialist

The development of five new sorghum seed varieties by the university’s Department of Crops, Horticulture and Soil Sciences is designed to yield industrial raw materials in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, bakery products, animal feeds and ethanol.

Lead researcher in development of the seeds Professor Erick Cheruiyot says one of the new sorghum varieties ‘EUS 130’ is now being used in the manufacture of value-added sorghum baked food products after a successful National performance trial conducted by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS).

Professor Cheruiyot notes that sorghum does not contain gluten hence blending it with other materials yields highly nutritious and healthy bakery products, The ‘EUS 130’ variety he states has been designed in a way that it can constitute up to 12 percent of blended raw flour used in baking.

The project further resulted in the rollout of ‘EU-SHI 1’ sorghum variety for beer malting, ‘EU-SS-10’ and ‘EU-SS-11’ for production of ethanol and animal feeds and 29 other high-yielding varieties to boost sorghum production as a food crop.

Professor Cheruiyot who is a specialist in crop physiology and a senior lecturer in the Department of Crops, Horticulture and Soils reveals that a team of researchers from Egerton University and scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) is currently working on a Super-Feed fodder sorghum whose attributes are high energy with sugar-rich stalk, less lignin for improved digestibility and staying green characteristics.

A co researcher Prof. Joshua Ogendo indicates that the new varieties are drought resistant and high-yielding, making them ideal for arid and semi-arid areas.

Prof. Ogendo states that women and youth owning at least an acre of land in Arid and Semi-Arid parts of 14 counties in Western, Nyanza, parts of Eastern and Lower Coast regions were at the core of the project who via their self-help groups were encouraged to grow sorghum as a commercial venture since local breweries now purchase it as a raw material for beer production.

By Jane Ngugi

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