PATRICIA Ondere, has since 1986 been growing maize, beans and ground nuts on her two acre farm in Sega, Siaya County.
She has all along been reluctant to switch to any other crop having been made to believe that these were the main crops suited for the area's climatic conditions.
However, reduced yields over the years saw her try sorghum cultivation.
“I decided to diversify into sorghum cultivation after a friend told me there was demand for the crop in the area,” she recalls.
Her first yield was however below her expectations though the market was available.
But things seem to have turned for the better when she was identified for a program meant to promote alternative crops to improve food security in Kenya.
The project is funded by, The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, McKnight Foundation, Generation Challenge Project and the National Council of Science and Technology.
It is being implemented by Moi University in partnership with Uganda’s Makerere University.
“Besides, part of my farm being used as a demonstration site, I have increased my acreage under sorghum from one and a half acres to two acres and the returns are rewarding,” she says.
The farmer says the project has honed their agricultural skills by exposing them to emerging agricultural techniques that guarantee high yields.
“Sorghum is now my main cash crop. The scientists from the institutions test our soils and advise us on the right spacing and farm inputs to use,” Patricia explains.
She says they have also trained farmers on the value of crop rotation and the disadvantages of using uncertified seeds from a previous harvest, for planting.
Crop rotation she says helps contain diseases that threaten crop production in the country and thus reversed the government’s efforts to address perennial food shortages.
Prof Samuel Gudu who is leading the project says the potential of Sorghum cultivation in the country was enormous and all that is required are appropriate laws to empower more farmers to cultivate the crop.
He notes that many famers over depended on maize, which is the country’s staple crop at the expense of other viable crops suitable to address perennial food shortages.
The genetics and plant breeding expert says farmers should target white sorghum that is popular with beer manufacturing companies because of its high quality compared to other varieties.
Prof Agustino Onkware, a physiologist working on the project advises farmers not to view challenges posed by birds as a real threat to production of sorghum saying the birds menace would be negligible if many farmers cultivated the crop.
“If many farmers planted the white variety, the birds will have plenty to feed on as they will be spread out over many farms and thus reduce the loss per unit farmer, as opposed to if one farmer was to struggle with the birds,” he says.
The scholars spoke to the media after a conducted tour of sorghum projects in various parts of Western Kenya.
They said farmers should be encouraged diversify into drought tolerant crops to fight off food insecurity. An acre produces between 20-25 bags of sorghum.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, the price of sorghum goes for as low as Sh3,500 in Nairobi and as high as Sh4,050 for a 90 kg bag in Eldoret and Mombasa at the moment in various major towns. This is compared to between Sh2,600 to Sh3,000 for a 90 kg bag that maize fetches in the local market. Beans retail for as low as Sh 5,400 to Sh 9,000 in major towns in the country whereas groundnuts go for between Sh9,200-Sh13,750 for a 110 kg bag.
Prof Gudu cites traditional crops like sweet potatoes, sorghum and cassava are suitable alternatives to push the country’s food agenda to the next level, particularly when the country is grappling with erratic rainfall patterns.
The scholars challenged the East African Breweries Limited to sign binding contracts with farmers particularly from Western Kenya where the crop thrives well in order to motivate them into growing sorghum.
They say farmers preferred other varieties of sorghum because they were popular in the local market and were less affected with birds compared to the white type of sorghum.
“Demand for the red or brown sorghum has been high. Beer producing companies can change this trend,” says Anne Nyambok, a master’s student working on the collaborative sorghum project.
She says researchers work with communities in targeted regions, where a particular crop does well and the farmers are usually free to select the varieties they want to cultivate.
Sorghum farmers appeals to the government to come up with policy measures that can empower local farmers to realize maximum profits from the crop.
Sylvester Chami, a farmer from Matayos says Kenyans should be encouraged to prioritise consumption of what they can produce before reaching out to what is produced in other countries.
“Why should the beer companies import barley, which is expensive when they can use sorghum as a raw material?” asks Chami.
Sorghum is used as animal feed and for human consumption, where it can be mixed with other grains to prepare porridge, flour and a variety of meals. The commodity is also used as a raw material for manufacture of some brands of beer.
The crop is also used as an animal feed particularly its remains after an harvest. The remains can be prepared into silage for livestock, and comes handy during the dry seasons of the year when there is little pasture for the animals.
Sorghum production is likely to benefit approximately 25,000 families mainly from Eastern, Nyanza and Western Kenya as these areas expeience less rainfall to warrantee optimum production of maize, which is the country’s staple crop.