Roselida Apamo speaks of an interesting thing that happened to her crop this year. The crop was ready to harvest. Then a big storm blew in and hailstones slashed her entire farm. But she didn’t lose hope. The hailstones actually drove seeds back into the ground. Within a few days, the whole garden was full of new crops. Ms. Apamo cheerily explains that “This cannot happen with maize.”
Like many people in Kenya’s Western province, she no longer grows maize. Instead, she grows grain amaranth. It’s a fast growing crop that seems to thrive even in poor weather. Despite the hail storm, Ms. Apamo harvested more than she expected.
In fact, grain amaranth has surpassed the expectations of many farmers. Amaranth has grown wild in east Africa for hundreds of years. In Kenya and Uganda, the common name is dodo. In Tanzania and parts of the Indian Ocean coastal region, it is referred to as mchicha.
Amaranth used to be known as a weed. Farmers typically uprooted it to make room for crops such as maize, bananas, and kale. It was perceived as a food for poor people, and feed for small livestock such as rabbits. But now it’s an important food crop and a major source of income for farmers, replacing maize.
Farmers in Western Kenya’s Lugari district turned to amaranth to cope with changing weather patterns. In recent years, they have been dealing with droughts and floods. In these conditions, maize fails. Amaranth has given them a reason to smile again. They are cultivating an improved variety that can grow up to seven feet high.
Small-scale farmers in Lugari say there is no comparison between maize and amaranth. They say amaranth grows without any chemical fertilizers. A farmer needs only manure to nourish the soil and produce a large crop. And unlike maize that is harvested once a year, amaranth can be harvested three times.
Amaranth is very nutritious. It’s a source of carbohydrates and is used to make bread and porridge. Farmer Marita Shikuku says the bread made from grain amaranth is better than bread made with wheat. And while a packet of wheat flour is expensive, farmers can grow their own amaranth and take it to the nearest grinding mill. They only need buy cooking oil. Porridge made from amaranth flour has become a popular food for children. Even its byproducts are useful. They make nutritious feed for livestock.
In addition to enjoying amaranth in their own homes, farmers are selling it to shops and supermarkets. One kilogram sells for 40 Kenya shillings (approximately 0.5 American dollars or 0.4 Euros). Sammy Tiego has been growing amaranth for three years now. He produces up to 150 tons a year. His success is obvious when you reach his home and see his comfortable house, car, and tractors.
Alice Juma is another farmer who is reaping the benefits of amaranth. At first she was skeptical of the new crop. She tried it in a small space in front of her house and was overwhelmed by how much it produced. Now she is encouraging all her neighbours to plant more amaranth. She raves that you can harvest up to 15 bags on one acre of land. The same plot would produce only eight to 10 bags of maize. And it would cost money to buy seeds and fertilizer for maize.
In responding to climate change, farmers have found a “wonder crop.” Amaranth has proven to be an excellent way to survive and fight poverty.