The efforts of a leading finger millet breeder working for the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), Dr. Chrispus Oduori, have progressively been bearing fruit.
KALRO has been conducting research especially in western Kenya on post-harvest practices and nutrition on finger millet, which is considered an underutilized crop in the country.
“Since the 1990s,” Dr. Oduori says, “Interest in finger millet has been improving and has been rekindled among the farmers.”
The Kenyan population depends on maize as the main staple. The ravages of climate change, coupled with certain diseases that sweep through maize plantations subject the crop to a cycle of harvest uncertainties.
Wilson Oduori (no relation to the scientist) is a small-scale farmer. He lives in Sikoma, Butula subcounty. He’s one of the farmers striving to elevate millets, in a bid to narrow the gap between scarcity of food and bumper harvests.
Oduori has split his three-acre farm into several portions of a quarter of an acre, save an eighth on which his homestead sits. Vegetables, finger millet, sorghum, cassava and maize each occupy a quarter while the remainder is left fallow.
“It’s Kalro that convinced me to grow the short period maturing sorghum,” he says. “This is the first time for me to grow this kind. Prior to this I used to grow the traditional one that would take four or five months.”
Millet (Panicum miliaceum) has broad leaves and bristly panicles, or clusters of seeds, have broad leaves, also includes similar grasses such as sorghum.
Since it’s Oduori’s first time to harvest the Seredo sorghum variety, he’s not sure what yield he would reap. His priority for now is to clip the crops’ panicles and stash them in a sack. His wife offers him the desired extra hands.
“After shelling that’s when I’ll know the actual quantity,” Oduori says. But a casual look at the mounds of slashed crop heaped at different spots makes him say, “The harvest appears better than that of the traditional kind. I’m optimistic that my harvest will surpass the previous I’ve had.”
“What I grow is for food and some income,” he says. “The traditional type was mainly for subsistence.”
He has dug trenches in some parts of his farm to direct surface run-off rainwater to specific spots and boost ground-water retention. His vegetables are leafy. As one walks withi n the trenches where his cassava crop stands, the dark green canopy provides shed from scorching sun.
The kind of crops that Oduori grows demonstrates that rural livelihoods could easily be sustained if land is properly utilized.
“I don’t understand why someone with land such as mine may not grow some food crops,” he says. He’s fairly contented with what his farm produces. This has reduced the products that he obtains from elsewhere.
Over the years, Oduori used to grow maize on a much larger parcel of his farm. But due to erratic weather patterns contributed by climate change, he delved in food diversification.
His family now has several options for flour. The four crops—finger millet, cassava, sorghum and maize—could be ground independently to produce pure flour of each. Blended flour from two or more of the crops could also be an alternative.
The nutritive component of millet makes it have an edge over other cereals. A Kalro food scientist in Kakamega, Dr. Francis Wayua says, “It is high in carbohydrates, especially starch, a bit of proteins, which have some essential amino acids. It’s also rich in minerals such as calcium, phosphorous, iron and Zinc.”
Nutritious foods may not always be tasty. Millet fits here. Taste for it has to be acquired. “Taste can influence your eating for nutrition,” Dr. Wayua says. He yearns for the crop to be promoted among the population of farmers and consumers since it’s a nutritious food.
“If you compare the calcium of finger millet, it is quite high compared to the other main cereals,” he says.
In Kenya by default, Dr. Wayua says, “Whenever porridge baby foods are prepared, finger millet has to be incorporated,” he says. He believes that what is lacking is nutritional education and adequate behavior change communication to urge the population to embrace millet foods.
Value addition enhances consumption. Apart from ugali and porridge, there are other foods that could be made from millets. A finger millet spread similar to peanut butter has been in the market in some parts of western Kenya. It’s yet to be widespread.
One great disadvantage that he’s had to contend with is the bird menace. “Birds really love the new variety of sorghum,” he says. “Despite positioning scarecrows, we haven’t been quite successful in deterring the birds from pecking at the grains.”
Dr. Oduori says, “The likes of Quelea’s, which are small-sized grain eating birds can be problematic.” However, from his vast experience, he has noticed that these birds don’t eat much.
He has a suggestion. “If you have the Panicum grasses growing around finger millet, the birds go to the Panicum seed first before they come to start bothering the finger millet crop.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Oduori says it depends on the variety planted. “The dark red grained varieties are not preferred by birds.”
Furthermore, the breeder believes that if many farmers were to delve into finger millet, the increased acreage of finger millet will spread the risk and the effects of birds will be minimal.
By William Inganga