They laughed at her when she decided to grow what was considered to be food for the birds, but now it is Anna Muli’s turn to laugh.
The 67-year-old resident of Waita Village in Mwingi Central in Kenya's lower eastern region, is happy with her resolution five years ago to abandon maize farming for sorghum.
When the Africa Review went knocking at her home, she proudly welcomed the visitors with bowls of porridge made from sorghum flour, a luxury she could not afford a few years ago.
Like in other parts of Kenya’s lower eastern region, Mwingi is a fairly dry area which receives minimal rainfall throughout the year, a situation that residents say has deteriorated in the recent years and which meteorologists attribute to climate change.
She has been gradually increasing the acreage under sorghum in her farm every planting season.
This season, Ms Muli planted the Gadam sorghum in just an acre of her farm, but she is optimistic that she will harvest close to five bags at the end of March.
This is her third planting season and she has nothing short of praises for Gadam, the popular sorghum variety here.
“When the rainfall became irregular, most of the youth left for urban areas to look for alternative sources of livelihood and the little maize or beans you could plant, could no longer yield enough to feed your family,” she said
She explained that from the harvest last season, she was able to get enough food to last her the dry spells, and from the surplus sales, she was now able to care for her grandson who just completed high school.
“With Gadam, you are assured of a harvest and once you grind it to flour, you can use it to cook ugali (a type of bread) and even bake cakes,” she adds
|Ms Anna Muli shows off her sorghum farm in Waita village in Kenya's lower eastern region. More arid and semiarid farmers have taken to growing drought tolerant crops to boost food security. SANDRA CHAO | NATION MEDIA GROUP|
Ms Muli is among the thousands of Kenyans living in arid and semi-arid areas who have adopted farming of Drought Tolerant Crops (DTCs) in order to improve food security at an individual level.
High value crops
The Kenyan government, through the ministry of Agriculture, aggressively embarked on the traditional high value crops programme in late 2006 in order to promote production and consumption of alternative cereal and non-cereal crops as well as improve food security in the arid and semi-arid areas.
The uptake by farmers has, however, been slow with increased farming of crops like millet, sorghum, cowpeas and green grams being witnessed in the last two years.
In Mwingi central, for instance, the sorghum acreage in 2006 was 6,256 hectares which improved to 14,000 hectares in 2011, up from 10,700 in 2010.
The district agricultural officer, Mr James Muchoka, attributes this slow uptake to the stereotypes that the communities associate the cereal with.
“Though the uptake has been improving, people still associate sorghum as a poor man’s crop and some still prefer to grow maize even though it will fail,” he said.
Mr Muchoka said that the ministry did not give any maize seed to farmers to deter them, giving away only the dryland crops and those who were bent on planting maize had to buy a one kilogramme bag at $4 (about KSh350).
The ministry currently runs a seed retrieval system where famers who are given seed through the district agricultural officer are expected to bring back twice as much as they were given in order to have a grain bank for the next planting season.
Though the system creates a constant supply of seed to farmers, Mr Taylor Mburu of Africa Harvest Foundation explained it reduces the potential yield every season.
The not-for-profit organisation has been running a sorghum project in Mwingi and other semiarid areas in Kenya as part of their mission to transform Africa into a hunger free zone.
“We try to instil in farmers the culture of using certified seed in order to boost the yield, but the seeds are quite expensive and out of their reach and we have to look for donors to assist in making it available to farmers,” he said.
Most of the sorghum farmers in Mwingi have clustered in groups of between 20 and 50 members and which they use to collectively store and sell the surplus.
After harvesting the dry heads from her farm, Ms Muli takes the seeds to the nearby silo owned by the group where it is thoroughly dried in the sun before it is stored.
“We have had several trainings among them how to ensure that the seeds contain 13 per cent moisture content by the time it is ready to grind to flour,” she says proudly.
Sorghum floor can be used to bake cakes and biscuits as well as make the staple Ugali although the seeds can also be cooked whole.
As a result of working in groups, sorghum famers in Mwingi have been able to benefit from selling in bulk. So far, they have been able to attract millers, alcohol brewers and manufacturers of animal feed.
“The prices have not been as good as we expected, but we have enough money for ourselves and can even buy the maize and beans we did not plant,” notes Ms Muli .
Ms Maryline Gachoya, a representative of the Australian High Commission, said that if there was an increased access to certified seeds, famers throughout the continent could become food secure.
“Sorghum is one of the drought tolerant crops that not only require little rainfall, but whose produce has multiple uses and as such various stakeholders should come on board to popularise it so that hunger can be a thing of the past,” she explained.
Numerous attempts have been made to improve the nutritional value of sorghum in order to better place it as an alternative to maize.
Africa harvest is currently working on a project in West Africa to bio-fortify sorghum, which is currently at the trials stages.
“We have plans to make a strong variety of sorghum enriched with Zinc and iron similar to the golden rice variety,” revealed Mr Mburu
Locally, the not for profit organisation has partnered with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in order to come up with higher yielding varieties of sorghum that can be introduced to the Kenyan farmer.