1. Kenya: New pigeon pea varieties help farmers cope with unreliable rains (IRIN, ICRISAT)

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Harrieta Nyaga is a maize farmer in Kenya’s eastern district of Mbeere South. She speaks of the difficulties her community has faced because of unreliable rains. The rains have become scarce, she says. This is the fourth year of insufficient rain.

When the rains do come, they can be unpredictable. Farmers expect the long rains to begin in March. At this time, they normally plant their maize. But this year the rains started in January, and farmers didn’t know what to do. Some planted maize and others did not.

The farmers of Mbeere South had another poor maize harvest. Ms. Nyaga normally harvests 20 large bags of maize. But this year, her field only yielded two. Now, farmers in the area are trying a new staple crop. Drought resistant pigeon peas are more resilient and offer hope for more reliable harvests.

Pigeon pea is a versatile crop. The pea itself is a high protein staple, while the pod is eaten as a vegetable. The green leaves are quality fodder and dry stems are used for fuel.

Pigeon pea is also naturally hardy, drought resistant, and grows in a range of environments. New varieties of pigeon pea developed by the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics offer even more. They are quick maturing and can be harvested after only 120 days. As a result, they do not rely on a second rainy season.

Richard Jones is assistant director for the crop research institute. He explains that a farmer can get a harvest of pigeon pea during the short rains at the end of the year. If there is a second rainy season, farmers can collect a second harvest.

Farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, and Mozambique are all experimenting with the drought resistant pigeon peas. By growing pigeon pea in addition to maize and other crops, they improve their food security. Carol Maringa is another farmer in Kenya’s Mbeere South district. She says that growing pigeon pea was not labour intensive. Normally, she needs fertilizer for her maize. But she was able to get a good crop of pigeon pea without fertilizer. She plans to plant more pigeon pea next season.

For farmers who were struggling to produce enough maize for their families, the drought resistant pigeon pea has come as a relief. John Ngari used to look for beans to mix with maize to make stew. He says the first harvest of pigeon pea really helped his family. They have enough to eat and plan to plant more pigeon pea and less maize in the future.