In September 2017, Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu visited the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) seeking a partnership for sustainable development initiatives in her county. Of urgency was her desire to shield Kitui residents from the effects of the 2016-2017 drought through the rehabilitation of critical community water points that had broken down due to over-use, food aid and support for the county's health system.
Our resolve was to empower Kitui residents through sustainably building their resilience to drought and other recurrent disasters in the region. The new approach over-ruled food aid, which was not sustainable, and underscored the importance of climate smart agriculture that supports small-holder farmers with drought-tolerant, high-yielding and protein-rich legumes, hence the birth of the 'ndengu (green grams) revolution'.
Every farmer received two kilos of seeds projected to produce two 90-kilo bags of green grams per farmer. The seeds' early maturity and low water demand meant that the farmers would enjoy good harvests.
The KRCS, with the support of Sh100 million from the Malaysian Islamic initiative (Zakat), invested a total of Sh115 million; Sh65 million for the purchase and distribution of 250 MT of green gram certified seeds and Sh50 million for the rehabilitation of 30 boreholes. The county also procured 115 MT of green grams.
This project became the epitome of success and served as a benchmark for neighbouring counties who have since partnered with us to implement it. Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties have distributed 50 MT and 25 MT certified green gram seeds respectively to their farmers for the March-April-May 2018 long rains season.
Objective number one of achieving household food security was achieved. The second was to scout for markets domestically and internationally. Ms Ngilu sought to engage India, which is known to source the produce from African countries. Sadly, India later effected a five-year ban on all imports of pulses, including green grams and pigeon peas, due to a successive favourable season in India.
In the process of seeking alternative markets, middlemen took advantage of the situation, with farmers selling a kilo of green grams between Sh40 and Sh70. We however remained hopeful of a sustainable solution because for once, Kitui residents do not have to wait for 'mwolio' (food aid) as they call it in the local dialect.
It is unfortunate that some political leaders in the county have chosen to politicise this matter instead of empathising and using their discretionary political position as policy makers to address the residents' plight. They should be talking about how non-maize growing regions could benefit from the Ministry of Agriculture and other Government authorities.
The should be discussing how green grams, which are nutritionally better than other legumes and do better than maize, can be absorbed into the country’s food basket and why the National Cereals and Produce Board should buy the produce from farmers in Kitui, Meru, Makueni, Tharaka Nithi and Machakos as is the case with maize, which ranges from Sh2,400-Sh3,000 per 90-kilo bag. And to support this initiative going forward, the Government could also consider giving farmers seed subsidies.
Any political noise should be centred on the above, both inside and outside Parliament by actively demanding changes in the Agriculture and Food Policy. These are the elephants in the room.
As KRCS Secretary General, first I urge the counties to establish county grain (both cereals and pulses) reserves to best address food insecurity. If we are part of the disaster risk management conversation, then such solutions are key in the journey towards building community resilience.
Second, like in the case of Meru County and its neighbours in Mt Kenya region, they must set up their own investment companies with the ability to buy such commodities when farmers cannot fetch good prices in the local markets, preserve and sell them elsewhere or release them during dearth times, alongside engaging in value addition.
Third, with the ban on export of pulses to India, Government agencies like the Kenya Defence Forces, National Youth Service and the Kenya Prisons Service could purchase the green grams as they have the need and financial capability to do so over a long-term arrangement, not forgetting hospitals and schools. The Kenya Export Bureau could additionally scout for other potential markets besides India.
I plead with President Uhuru Kenyatta to intervene and come to the rescue of farmers and county governments. Their genuine efforts are noble and commendable, and have the potential to grow.
Dr Gullet is the Secretary General, Kenya Red Cross Society