• Farmers like thick-stemmed, short to medium height with heads containing many grains. Many customers like brown colour.
• Sorghum can be used for feeding livestock, human consumption and brewing beer. Global and local varieties trialled.
Below the slopes of Nandi Hills in Kibos are fields richly covered with sugarcane, maize and sorghum and other crops.
Thirty farmers are walking around a sorghum field different accessions or groups of sorghum and filling out forms.
From one section of the field to the other, the farmers observe the sorghum plants and write down their observations in notebooks and on forms.
The farmers are selecting their preferred sorghum varieties they can be supported in growing by Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organisation (Kalro). Its Genetic Resources Research Institute (GeRRI) is developing durable crops that climate-resilient.
GeRRI is one of Kalro’s semi-autonomous institutes with a mandate to conserve plant, animal and microbial genetic resources for present and future generations.
After hours in the fields, each farmer writes down their preferred selection criteria and genotypes.
“My favourite are varieties of medium height as they are easy to harvest compare to the tall ones,” Busia farmer Lawrence Enyang’ata said.
He also prefers early-maturing varieties and those with large heads that hold more grains.
Farmer Patricia Achieng from Siaya prefers varieties with brownish grains as they are greatly preferred by customers.
“The brown varieties have various markets as they are used as poultry feed, for family consumption as well as for brewing alcohol, thus, there is a ready market,” she said.
She also prefers varieties with short stalks because they are easier to harvest than tall ones.
“I don’t like the ones with slender stems as they can hardly withstand strong wind, unlike the thicker-stemmed varieties,” Achieng said.
In addition to selecting their preferred varieties, the farmers also attended a workshop in which they described the traits they like.
In a programme called the Seeds for Resilience Project (SFR), GeRRI has partnered with Rongo University to research some of the sorghum sections conserved at GeRRI.
The initiative is funded by the Crop Trust, an international non-profit organisation that promotes conservation and availability of the world’s crop genetic diversity to enhance food security.
SFR is providing infrastructure, financial and technical support to the National Gene Bank of Kenya to enhance its capacity in conservation and use of plant genetic resources.
“Over the years, the country has lost numerous varieties of sorghum and the time has come to reclaim them,” GeRRI Institute director Dr Desterio Nyamongo said.
He said it is crucial to invest in research and cultivation of adaptive crops at time of climate change that can be devastating.
“With the increased drought, we need to identify crops that are drought resilient,” Nyamongo said.
As the primary user is the farmer who grows these varieties, thus, the need to understand their needs and preferences.
This selection process followed the initial one done during the short rains.
For the first season, 200 sorghum varieties were put in trial, of which farmers preferred 32.
“The aim of this activity is to increase the number of sorghum varieties available to farmers for fighting climate change,” senior research scientist and SFR project focal point person, Dr Peterson Wambugu said.
He said plans are underway to enable farmers to access seeds of their preferred varieties for planting and further evaluation.
“Out of the 32, three have been identified by farmers as lost varieties that are now being restored, thanks to seeds conserved at GeRRI,” Peterson said.
For the current season, 174 sorghum varieties are under trial and farmers chose 61 of them.
Experts in the SFR projects said in addition to selecting their preferred genotypes, the exercise raises awareness of GeRRI’s germ plasm collection and its importance in enhancing food security. Inheritable qualities are only transmitted by germ cells.
Wambugu said GeRRI conserves about 6,000 accessions of sorghum collected from different parts of the world, including the duplicate collection of African sorghum and millet.
An accession is a group of related plant material from a single species that is collected at one time from a specific location. Each accession is an attempt to capture the diversity present in a given population of plants.
While some of the selected accessions were originally collected from different regions of the country like Nyeri, Elgeyo Marakwet, Busia and Kakamega, others originated from other countries.
In Western and Nyanza regions, sorghum is not only a well-performing crop, but is also popular for consumption in different forms, from ugali (like maize meal) to porridge and traditional brew.
Increasing cases of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are also raising demand for this crop, compared to other crops such as maize.
Research and extension director at Rongo University Dr Evans Ouma said young people should adopt sorghum as an agribusiness venture and for nutrition.
“All stakeholders including government, the private sector, development organisations, academic institutions and farmers need to aggressively and address issues of climate change, health and food security,” he said.
He said limited resources and the poor performance of some varieties are major challenges.