Maize disease sees famers diversify to other high-value crops

By Edwin Makiche

BOMET, KENYA: Augustine Kosonei, a farmer in Mariango Village, Bomet County hums with happiness as he attends his sweet potatoes farm.

He work Sconfidently despite stereotypes that sweet potato is a ‘woman’s crop’. He says the crop is one of the latest delicacies he has added to the family menu.

 This is one among a variety of short seasoned crops he is cultivating under his two-acre farm. This is the piece of land that in the past years used to be predominantly under maize.

Like many farmers in the South Rift, Kosone lost acres of his maize crop to a strange maize lethal necrosis disease early this year. Even to date, the disease still baffles the agricultural scientists and whose diagnosis has not yet come forth.

A year before, his crib was full of maize cobs now it is practically empty.  But Kosonei opines that his family has diversified.

 It now feeds on variety of foods like baked bread, githeri, sweet potatoes and Irio, which before were treated as not ‘serious’ meals.

Necessity is the mother of invention. The disaster became a wake up call for many families in the region who relied only Ugali, made from a maize flour as their staple food. Ugali, which is normally served with stew such as vegetables and sour milk, was an ingredient in every course. Other foods like Chapati, Matoke, Githeri and Wali was taken as snacks and were often preserve for local hotels and special occasions like weddings or Christmas.

“Ugali is a kind of addiction. You cannot serve githeri or Wali to a Kipsigis man for supper and you expect him to take you seriously. For us, this was perceived as an appetiser as you wait for the real meal ­— Ugali served with Mursik (sour milk). We therefore famine as lack of Ugali in the diet’’ says Kosonei.

He adds, “But after we helplessly watched the maize crop rot in farms while the  Government was dragging its feet, we realised that we had to diversify our meal.s’’

Sweet memories

Ideally, Kosonei could tell his friends how the children ‘slept hungry whenever they met at the shopping centres.  But today, they discuss how beans, wheat and potato crops are growing.

They also share notes on how to tend the crops and possible markets for the produce. The group also gets a chance to discuss the political activity in the country without worrying about their children’s meals.

“Thanks to the rains that have been pounding the area, the disease has liberated the farmers and made them realise that they too can be both producers and consumers of other crops such as at beans, wheat, sweet potatoes and even bananas,’’ says Stephen Mutai, an agriculturalist and large-scale farmer.  Mutai lost over 10 acres of his crop to the disease. He says at the time, his life was on the verge of collapse. He had depended on the farm both for domestic and commercial purposes.

He observes that their petition the Government to compensate them was fruitless as it kept shifting blame. “We had experienced a total crop failure but no one seemed to take us seriously,’’ he says.

“Information from different agricultural actors was contradicting. Our local leaders also failed to show farmers direction and began adding political overtones to the already grave matter.”

He adds, “The reality of famine was right before us and we realised we had to take devices to our own hands.”

The former ministry of Agriculture officer decided to suspend maize farming and settled on beans and potatoes.

 A visit by Business Beat to his farm at Kipsarwet in Bomet County revealed the success of other crops like beans, potatoes and cow peas in an area where maize once thrived.

 His farm is often used by locals for field study demonstrates. It also acts as an attitude shift from mono-cropping to mixed cropping. Unlike some farmers who left their farms to be taken over by colonies of weeds after maize failed, Mutai says he planted these crops and the results was overwhelming.

 “After three three months, I harvested seven bags of beans in a section of the farm and 50 bags of potatoes on another section. The proceeds from the produce were able to cushion me from the losses I had experienced from the maize failure’’ he says.

 Farmers living in other areas of Bomet County have also diversified to other crops such as finger millet and green bananas. David Tuei, a farmer in Kimuchul location, Bomet told Business Beat he had never realised the full potential of his farm before the maize bug attacked his farm.

 “After I lost two acres of the crop to the disease, I and my wife reluctantly sowed finger millet and wheat as we waited for the authorities to provide direction. We were however overwhelmed by the bumper harvest of these ‘wilderness’ crops gave us. We have decided to sow these crops interchangeably.’’ The availability of variety