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Think beyond maize as a staple crop to fight hunger, researchers advise

Scientists are thinking beyond maize as the country’s staple, given erratic rainfall and declining land sizes. The steady increase in the number of hungry mouths and declining production are not making matters any easier.

The devastating effects of the striga weed and the maize lethal necrosis disease are also worrying potential maize farmers.

Researchers now want growers, particularly in lowland areas where maize does not thrive, to diversify into drought-tolerant and fast-maturing crops, which include finger millet, sorghum, cassava, and sweet potatoes.

Concerns that finger millet has been relegated to the periphery, its economic and nutritional value notwithstanding, have seen some scientists shift their focus to the crop.

Prof Matthew Dida, the lead researcher in the finger millet project, said farmers were being encouraged to value the crop after more than 50 years of falling production.

“Unlike Kenya, finger millet production is a lucrative economic activity in Tanzania and Uganda, where it is grown on a large scale,” said Prof Dida of Maseno University’s School of Agriculture.

Ms Benta Ocholla, a farmer from Marenyu sub-location, Siaya County, is among those benefiting from the finger millet project. She said the crop takes less space and time to mature compared to maize besides attractive good market prices.

“The problem with many people is that they fear doing things differently. Some insist on the same seeds which they have been using over the years even when they are introduced to modern ones that guarantee high yields,” said Ms Ocholla.

“I earn more from finger millet compared to other cereals. Its production costs are low as it is less susceptible to the effects of weeds, pests, and diseases,” she said.

Whereas a two-kilogramme tin of maize fetches between Sh50 and Sh100 in the local market, finger millet goes for between Sh150 and Sh200, depending on supply for the same quantity.

Mr John Konditi, another farmer from Uyoma, Rarieda District, said the broadcasting method has doubled his yields.

A portion of land that fetches him 80 two-kilogramme tins of finger millet can barely realise a sack of maize. “If I need maize, I can sell the finger millet at Sh200 per tin and purchase eight bags of maize at Sh2,000 per sack when supply is high,” he said.

Bio-resources Innovations Network for Eastern Africa Development (Bio-Innovate) deputy programme manager, Dr Allan Liavoga, said under the initiative, scientists are working with farmers to increase acreage under the crop.

He added that although the crop is primarily sold locally, millers are also taking advantage of the fact that people are getting nutritionally more conscious and are now producing diverse flour products.

“Interestingly, finger millet is fetching more money than maize in the local markets,” said Dr Liavoga, revealing that the programme they had started off with Siaya, Migori and Homa Bay counties.

Farmers are also trained on soil preparation and the value of planting in rows as opposed to broadcasting. “Proper spacing is important for any crop. It leads to increased yields and makes weeding and harvesting easier. For instance, finger millet requires fine soils,” said Prof Dida who has been researching on the crop for the past 10 years.

The university has rolled out the Maseno 60D variety which flowers within 60 days and matures within 80, compared to traditional seeds that take 120 days.


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