Machakos — For a couple that has weathered the dual tests of early retirement and repeated crop failures, it might have seemed an impossible dream to former primary-school teacher Philip Ngolania and his farmer wife that their three quarters of an acre farm could one day yield enough staple food to last an entire season.
But a visit to the local office of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) early this year ushered in a fresh beginning for the 62-year-old father of four grown sons, whose land barely produced enough food for the family's daily meals in this drought-parched area east of the capital, Nairobi. Since that visit, he says, the family's prospects have improved dramatically.
In the seven years after leaving teaching, Ngolania has shared the burden of producing food for the family. "Now I'm assisting my wife," he says. "We are working together." But the indigenous seed varieties they were planting resulted in less than a single bag of grain each season.
At KARI, Ngolania learned about newly developed varieties that could resist drought and yield more produce. In fact, during this past season, he saw the small plot he and his wife cultivate yield five bags of maize for the first time.
For thousands of small-scale farmers like these, access to information about seed alternatives can mean the difference between struggling to survive and thriving.
"Before I made the switch to the improved seed varieties, I always knew that hunger would come visiting," says Ngolania. "But since I started planting the new seed which I obtain at the Dryland Seed Company in Machakos town, famine has gone away."
It is easy to understand the Ngolania family's improved expectations. By KARI's estimation, their farm sits within Kenya's dry mid-altitude region, about 1,670 meters above sea level, and receives about 600 to 900 millimeters of rain annually.
According to James Gethi, a researcher with the KARI center in Machakos, this means that only maize varieties that flower within 60 days -- and that mature within 110 and 120 days -- are suitable for growing here.
It took a four-year research collaboration between KARI and the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa program, under the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), to get two drought-resistant maize varieties to Ngolania's farm. The seed's names are prosaic -- KDV1 and KDV4 -- but for local farmers, they are transformative.
"These are open-pollinated maize varieties where the plants are allowed to cross together and tend to have a wide range of adaptation to a harsh environment," explains Gethi. "A farmer can plant them at least three times before going back to a stockist for fresh seed."
For 450 Kenyan shillings (about U.S.$5) farmers can purchase 250 kilogrammes worth of the KDV1 and KDV4 seeds. Joseph Masila, a marketing officer at the Dryland Seed Company, says growing awareness of the new varieties, along with greater access, is benefitting farmers and families across the arid areas of Kenya.
According to Masila, the KDV1 and KDV4 varieties can mature within a span of two and half months and also thrive where there has been little rainfall.
But the advantages don't end with durability. As Ngolania may find out, there also is a commercial edge that researchers are hoping to introduce to farmers to help them grow crops for both domestic consumption and for income generation. Both strategies are seen as powerful engines to pull Africa from the cycle of food insecurity.
Successful trials in Asia and parts of North and South America have proven that improved seed technology has generated significant income for both farmers and for seed breeders and distributors. Experts hope that approach can also work in Africa.
Lloyd Le Page is the former chief executive officer at the Consortium of International Agriculture Research Centers (CGIAR), of which CIMMYT is affiliated. He says development of drought-tolerant plant varieties is meant to deliver solutions to farmers as well as to local small seed enterprises, through a sustainable revenue stream.
"This ensures that the technology is not just limited within research laboratories, but it is able to reach farmers," says Le Page. "By so doing, small African seed enterprises can make an income. Farmers are able to produce enough food for themselves and the family and also sell to the ready markets."
Struggling to Meet Farmer Demand
But while appetite for improved seed technologies is growing among drought-hit farmers, Kenya's agriculture research institutions are struggling to meet demand, according to the KARI Katumani Research Center's director, Charles Kariuki.
"We do not have enough capital, manpower, time and even capacity," says Kariuki. "The seed we are producing is meant for field trials. Seed companies are expected to add value to these varieties so that they meet the set national standards."
KARI's Gethi describes a labor-intensive process where plants are tested under field conditions, which include drought. Once a "breeder seed" is developed and passes a regulatory process by Kenya's plant-health inspection service, the seed is made available to partners. In the case of the Ngolania plot, the certified seed comes from the Dryland Seed Company which has developed and marketed it.
For now, the Ngolania family appreciates the change that using improved seed technology has brought to their farm -- and also values another technological innovation. In a corner of the small living room sits a round metal silo, reaching almost to the ceiling.
Ngolania says grain borers used to grind his maize into powder -- a common problem in developing countries. The African Post Harvest Losses Information System estimates that post-harvest crop loss in eastern and southern Africa amounts to some U.S.$1.6 billion per year, or about 13.5 percent of the total value of grain production. That loss is no longer a concern to Ngolania.
On a recent day, a neighboring couple have come to his house to marvel at how the vacuum-sealed container protects the maize harvest from both weather and pest infestation. Their enthusiasm suggests that the demand for metal silos may soon become as much of a challenge to meet as the demand for improved seeds.
See AllAfrica's interview with Bill Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he links food scarcity to a number of development challenges.