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Reaping on dry land

MBEERE, Kenya, Aug 17 – As the cock crows one early morning in Karaba, a small village in Mbeere District, Joseph Mutiso, a 35-year-old father of four is already working on his farm.

This two-acre piece of land is his only source of livelihood. But the last two years have not been so easy on this family man. With three failed rain seasons, Mutiso has helplessly watched every single crop on his farm wither in the blazing sun.

With five mouths to feed, this young father fast got frustrated which led him to seek alternative crops.

In August last year, he planted an improved type of pigeon pea also known as Mbaazi in Kiswahili offered by the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics, ICRISAT.

“I have planted on a quarter acre. I have harvested the first grain but it was not much as it was about four kilogrammes because it did not mature well,” he says.

“You know it needs a little rainfall for it to flower but last year there was no single drop of rain and as you can see we cannot irrigate here, we have no water,” he plainly recalls.

But his second yield, which he intends to harvest later this month (August) and this part of the farm where he has planted the improved pigeon pea, is now the admiration of the entire village.

“This second harvest seems to be a lot. I estimate about 90 kilogrammes. Now I think I will be growing more of the pigeon pea than maize because it seems it grows better,” he blissfully states.

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He intends to sell part of the harvest at the local market where he says a kilogramme of the now coveted grain is selling at Sh120 which is Sh40 higher than maize.

Patricia Mutheu and Lucy Nduku have been standing at Mutiso’s farm watching at a distance as we conduct the interview. The look in their eyes tells it all, that they are admiring this yield and probably wishing they had heard about it before.

“I have come from the other side of the village,” says Nduku pointing with her finger to the East.

“I have come to see this crop and also probably learn more about it from you people,” she adds.

Her friend Mutheu says, “I planted maize and beans but did not reap anything. This place has been very dry, we had rain for only one day and it was actually a few hours in December last year. Maybe if I plant this crop it will help me feed my five children.”

Mohammed Somo, a Breeder with ICRISAT says while the international organisation is not asking farmers to shift from maize to pigeon pea in totality, the farmers need to diversify their crop production because of the rain inconsistency.

He says the improved seed variety is pest and drought resistant, and has a lot of biomass for the animals.

“We have three varieties, ICEAP (Icrisat East African Pigeon pea) 00557, 00554 and 00850.We have many varieties but this is what we thought might be adaptable for this area,” Somo explains.

The difference in the varieties is that the ICEAP 00557 is large seeded, has many seeds in a pod, drought tolerant and the colour of the pod is shiny which is preferred by most markets. It also cooks faster.

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“ICEAP 00850 can tolerate pest attack more than the rest. The only disadvantage about it is that the seeds are slightly smaller than the ICEAP 00557 and ICEAP 00554.”

Somo says the greatest challenge has been to convince farmers to grow the crop because maize is given more prominence as a staple food in Kenya. The uptake of the technology by seed companies to produce it has also been slow, making it unavailable.

“What we are now doing is that the seed which is harvested by the farmers is redistributed to the neighbours,” he says.

“We are just developing a cycle of this seed distribution and this is the model we are going to use to introduce other new varieties, so that even if the companies are not there to produce, the farmers – in what we call the community seed bulkers – can produce the seed and sell it to the neighbours,” he elaborates.

Somo however emphasises that the crop is not genetically modified (GMO).

“In an improved crop, we just do the traditional crossing, we take the flower from different types and we cross. The ‘babies’ are what we call improved,” he says.

Agatha Njeri is another farmer in the same area. Planting the pigeon pea has saved her from the snares of hunger.

“I planted in November, it started flowering in January and by March I was already harvesting,” she says with a big smile on her face.

“After the harvest it started flowering again and by June I had a second harvest,” she adds.

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Njeri says the maize she planted in the same period did not produce anything and is now animal feed.

ICRISAT Eastern and Southern Africa Director Dr Said Salim says the indigenous varieties take up to ten months to mature while the improved varieties take three months.

“This is our second year now in this area and we expect these varieties to be officially released by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute,” Dr Salim says.

“We do what we call on thumb trials where we get all the information on farmer perception, yield, and then we go to a second stage called demonstrations. This is where we give farmers seed and encourage them to plant’ and then the third stage is where they start growing,” he explains.

Dr Salim says the varieties were mainly introduced to cope with climate variability and in Makueni – another district they are working in –  there is over 80 percent adoption of the crop by farmers.

“We realise that fertilisers are expensive so pigeon pea is a crop that fixes nitrogen, use it as its own fertiliser and the rest is left for succeeding crop or cereals when it comes next season,” he says.

“Also because firewood is becoming expensive, the stems of the pigeon pea can be used as firewood.”

With the rising variation in weather, probably the time is ripe for Kenyan farmers to consider crops that can withstand this change and pigeon pea is one of them.

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