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Kenya: Improved local varieties boost food security (by Sawa Pius, for Farm Radio Weekly)

Joseph Nzila’s family has struggled for many years to grow enough food. The family of fifteen relied on just maize and a poor variety of beans, and their one hectare yielded just one bag of maize.

The 67-year-old farmer explains: “I have six children and eight grandchildren. I was having a problem paying school fees as well as feeding them.”

Terezia Nzila is Joseph’s wife. In days past, she worked on other farms in exchange for food to feed her family.

But life is different now at the Nzila home in the Kee division of Makueni County. Mr. Nzila now harvests several bags of maize, beans and cowpeas every year. The increased yields are courtesy of a project that began in 2011, when the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute, or KARI, distributed improved local varieties to farmers in the Watema Fruits Farming Self Help Group.

As part of a research project KARI runs with Canada’s McGill University, Mr. Nzila and other farmers were taught how to intercrop the improved varieties to increase yields.

Mr. Nzila bought improved seeds for green grams, cowpeas, beans and maize from KARI. The seeds tolerate the harsh semi-arid weather, maturing quickly on little rain.

Mr. Nzila says that, since the project began, he has harvested two bags of cowpeas, four bags of beans and four bags of maize per year.

In the Katangi Division of Machakos County, another group of farmers is growing improved varieties of pigeon peas, cassava, sweet potatoes, beans and other crops.

Josephat Mbete is one of the 23 farmers in the Menkukya Self Help Group. He says, “We used to [only] plant maize, but it would just dry up when rain disappeared.”

As part of the KARI-McGill research project, Mr. Mbete now intercrops maize with an improved pigeon pea variety. The new variety does well in sandy soil because it doesn’t need much water.

Mr. Mbete says, “The variety is big and heavy compared to the ordinary one, and the insects don’t like it. It is good when cooked with cassava, and in one year we harvest twice.”

Farmers who plant the improved varieties and learned to intercrop are now harvesting enough food. The improved varieties mature quickly, are resistant to drought, and yield better than the maize which had been the farmers’ only crop.

Back in Makueni County, farmers are now teaching each other how to intercrop. Lucy Makanza is Joseph Nzila’s neighbour and has learned the technique from him. Mr. Nzila also helped her acquire the improved varieties.

Mrs. Makanza says: “You can see by yourself how my plot looks. I have improved maize, beans and cowpeas, which I’m expecting to harvest abundantly.”