Researchers develop better millet varieties

Millet and sorghum varieties displayed at the Tharaka Cultural Festival in Ura Gate in 2015 / AGATHA NGOTHO
Millet and sorghum varieties displayed at the Tharaka Cultural Festival in Ura Gate in 2015 / AGATHA NGOTHO

Farmers will soon get drought- and disease-resistant finger millet varieties, experts have said.

Henry Ojulong, a cereals breeder at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), said finger millet is highly valued for its nutritional qualities but production is still low. “The high levels of calcium, iron and amino acids in finger millet make it exceptionally nutritious. It is ideal for diabetic people, since it has high amounts of slowly digestible starch that contribute to a slow release of sugar into the bloodstream,” he said.

Ojulong said blast disease and the striga parasitic weed are key constraints to increased production. “Blast is the most destructive disease of finger millet. Blast can occur at all stages of plant growth and can affect the leaves, neck and fingers,” he said in a statement last week.


In Kenya, blast can cause an estimated average yield loss of about 30 per cent. Striga, a sap-sucking weed, can lead to complete loss of crop and once it’s in a farmer’s field, it is nearly impossible to eradicate.

The research is being carried out under the Crop Wild Relatives pre-breeding project, led by ICRISAT and funded by the Crop Trust.

“This project involves working with crop wild relatives of finger millet since some of those have developed tolerance to either blast or striga,” Damaris Odeny, principal investigator of the five-year project at ICRISAT, said.

She said the team started by collecting wild finger millet samples and screening them for resistance to blast and striga.

“We used wild relatives of finger millet, because we observed some of them growing alongside cultivated finger millet on farmers’ fields were not affected by either striga or blast,” Odeny said. She said the wild types, however, lack many traits that cultivated varieties may have, such as grain size and color, early maturation or high yield.

Crop Wild Relatives Pre-breeding project coordinator Benjamin Kilian said the end goal is to raise finger millet production by providing farmers with access to varieties that not only withstand drought, but are also resistant to blast and striga.

Kilian said during the first phase of the project, the team, which included researchers from ICRISAT, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation- Kisii Centre and Maseno University, identified wild finger millet samples, showing resistance to striga and blast disease, as well as drought tolerance.

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