James Mwaura has been growing maize, wheat, tomatoes, beans and other crops for many years. However, he has discovered a new secret - bean seed multiplication.
He says seed production fetches twice the income he normally gets from grains and there is also a ready market for his produce.
"I decided to try seed multiplication because there is a ready market. The margin of profit in seed production is high compared to selling grains.I now get double what I used to get before," the farmer from Bahati, Nakuru county, says.
Mwaura has been contracted to grow new improved bean varieties by the department of plant science and crop protection, University of Nairobi Kabete Campus, through support from the Bio Innovate Programme and in partnership with TruFoods Ltd.
He adds that seed multiplication may be more labour-intensive than other crops but the returns are worth the effort.
Mwaura is the only farmer in Kenya who works with Bio Innovate Programme on value added bean technologies for enhancing food security, nutrition, income and resilience to cope with climate change in Eastern Africa.
He is growing seeds of the first ever bio-fortified bean varieties which are rich in iron and zinc micronutrients and are best for canning purposes in his five-acre piece of land.
More than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from malnutrition due to lack of iron and zinc, according to World Food Organization.
"I sell one kilogramme of the bean seed product at Sh100 while the price of grain is Sh50 or Sh60. These varieties mature very fast so I am assured of faster and better returns," he says, adding that more than 10 farmers in the area have expressed interest in seed multiplication as they have seen the benefits.
However, there are many stringent measures involved in seed production which farmers tend to shy away from.
According to Prof Paul Kimani from the UoN department of plant science and crop protection, seed production is stringent than grain production and not many farmers are willing to go through this.
"In grain production, nobody comes to check the crops for disease or anything. The farmer is at liberty to grow the crop as he wishes but there is more demand in terms of inputs and a farmer must be trained in seed production," says Kimani.
A farmer must be registered with the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) as a seed grower. This, according to Kimani, can only happen after thorough inspection to ensure that the land intended for seed production is promising and has sufficient isolation distant.
"Even after registration, Kephis still does more inspection from the time of planting till they can allow the farmer to harvest the seeds. They also have to inspect storage of the seeds and these are some of the things that many farmers are not ready to put themselves through. The returns are far much better than in grain farming but it is a cumbersome venture to many farmers," he added.
Seed Trade Association of Kenya CEO Evans Sikinyi said seed production in the country is experiencing a big challenge mainly due to unavailability of land.
"The problem of isolation is one of those key issues that are proving difficult so seed companies are now trying to move into areas that were not known for seed production. Traditionally, we used to grow all seed through natural rain-fed agriculture. However, we are now moving into areas where it is necessary to do it under irrigation. In terms of isolation, the only areas that are still least densely populated are those dry areas," said Sikinyi.
He said he is happy the government is opening up many irrigation schemes and he is optimistic that part of this land will be allocated for seed production.
"Last year, we had a shortage of seeds because of drought and production area....the government has however said it will allocate some irrigation land for seed production," he said.
Sikinyi said seed growing must be practised with caution and that is why farmers are trained. For the seed to be certified, proper care must be taken right from the land that it is grown in. This is to ensure good quality seed that will ensure good germination, vigour/strength, free from diseases and uniformity so that it all matures at the same time.
"For this to happen, it has to be taken through the process of making sure that it is pure in terms of genetics, it is free from contamination, it is a pure seed, properly dried, properly sorted, has been treated, is properly packaged, labelled and well stored," he said.