Kenya: Growing traditional crops help cope with climate change

Many households in sub-Saharan Afria struggle with poverty and food insecurity. Now climate change hit their harvests and makes life even harder. But finding new markets for hardy indigenous grains like millet, that can better stand up to extreme weather and changing pests, and produce a reliable harvest, can help, agricultural scientists say.

Patrick Maundu, an ethnobotanist at the National Museums of Kenya and an honorary fellow with Bioversity International, an organisation that promotes agricultural biodiversity, said millet is a traditional Kenyan crop - just one that, over the years, lost ground to maize.

The change came as a result of the intense promotion of maize production by governments, research groups and multinational companies selling products in Africa, he said.

"Millet is well adapted to dry parts of Africa but has been neglected because of ... key policies focused on maize, taking over indigenous cereals," he said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But in the recent years, wilder weather linked to climate change and the high cost of farm inputs - which farmers can struggle to pay if harvests fail - has made maize farming less reliable, particularly for small-scale farmers like those in Embu, Maundu said.

That has pushed many farmers to diversify back into drought-resistant traditional crops. The amount of farm acreage planted with maize in Kenya has therefore fallen by about a quarter in recent years, according to data from Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture.

Still, finding a ready market for crops like millet - and getting people to resume eating them - can be a challenge.

But Kenyan millet farming entrepreneurs now say that the key to making the new crops pay is adding value to what was harvested. One example is the thriving use of millet instead of maize for popcorn.

The puffed millet, besides being tasty, has boosted employment opportunities in Embu and helped reduce food waste because it can be stored longer.

Stella Gathaka 30, who formerly worked as a food vendor, is now one of four workers at small factory making puffed millet.

Besides earning a salary, her new job allows her children to eat the millet snacks, which are more nutritious than their previous snack of sweet wheat biscuits.

These days, "I'm very knowledgeable on the importance of millet as a nutritious crop," she said.

Daniel Kirori, operations director at DK Engineering Ltd., which assembles the popping machines, said his company had sold about 15 of them so far to women's groups and other entrepreneurs around Kenya.

According to a 2017 United Nations report on the state of food security and nutrition, climate change pressures, from worsening droughts to floods, heatwaves and storms, are a key reason about 800 million people still lack access to enough food. Producing more millet and other traditional hardy crops, and finding ways to process them to produce more income, is one way of doing that.

Emily Wawira, a small-scale millet farmer in Embu who sells her produce to Gichangi, said she sells 10 to 20 sacks of grain each year, each weighing 90 kilos, and earns $25 to $30 per sack.

That income "is enough to pay school fees," she said - and an improvement on her former loss-making maize farming.

Source: Reuters

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