Dedan Kimathi University is conducting research on one of the latest super-foods in the country: Chia seeds.
Introduced in Kenya from South America in 2016, Chia seed farming is increasingly picking up for its health benefits and returns - a kilogramme costs Sh300.
Chia seeds are rich in proteins and are recommended for malnourished children and adults. They are also suitable for management of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Still, being a relatively new crop, farmers have raised concern over the lack of certified seeds.
During Chia seed stakeholders’ forum at Dedan Kimathi University at the weekend, farmers highlighted the lack of certified seeds and low prices as some of the challenges they faced.
The forum was organised by the university as part of a three-year project to educate farmers on the benefits of Chia seed farming and encourage its consumption.
The institution's Chia seed project coordinator Monica Mburu said the University had zeroed in on the seeds as one of the foods that could combat lifestyle diseases.
“Chia's can be a great alternative to maize farming. It is an excellent food additive and also rich in Omega 3 protein and fibre,” said Dr Mburu.
One acre requires 5kg of seeds for planting. This yields about 500kg. The cost of production is estimated at Sh50,000.
Farmers called for more information on how to access certified seeds, saying the shortage affected production.
“This is a relatively new crop to most of us. We do not know where we can get affordable clean seeds. We recycle from what we harvest,” said Mwangi Ngugi, a local farmer.
Others said they were concerned about the seeds' fluctuating prices, adding that there was a difference between the farm gate prices and the retail ones.
“We sell a kilogramme of Chia seeds at Sh200 at the farm, but when we visit the shops 500gms of chia seeds is sold at Sh500,” he noted.
The farmers complained of low consumption, poor awareness, adding that lack of market for their produce was also a hindrance to their success. They said they were counting losses despite the nutritional value of crop.
“At least 1,200 chia seed farmers will benefit from the project that will provide farmers with certified Chia seed seedlings, and extension services support to help in production,” Mburu assured the farmers.
The university announced that it was working with Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) to produce high yielding and clean seeds for farmers, and vowed to train most of the beneficiaries on the best farming practices.
The farmers also complained that they needed a thrashing machine to help them harvest clean seeds for sale.
“The seeds are very small and unfortunately they cannot be consumed with impurities such as stones. We need thrashing machines that can help farmers so they can produce Chia in bulk,” Naftali Mwangi, also a farmer, stated.
Mburu said the university was working to develop equipment and technology to make it easier for farmers to produce Chia seeds.
“Students at the university have developed thrashing machines that will help Chia farmers. Farmers are welcome to visit our workshops to see the equipment available for use,” she said.
Researchers and varsity
According to KALRO director Patrick Gicheru, researchers were working with the university on the perfect soil to grow Chia.
“Across the country, we have a challenge of low zinc and iron nutrients in the soils, but Chia seeds are able to absorb these nutrients from poor soils, which is good nutritional value of the crop,” said Dr Gicheru.
He said researchers were helping farmers on the right soils to grow the crop.