Disease that started in Narok South has since spread to Trans Mara, Kilgoris, Bomet, Nyamira, Kisii, Nandi and Nakuru counties.
In Emarti village, Kilgoris Sub-county in Narok County, women line up to buy maize from a lorry that has just delivered dry grain for sale.
Traders in the lorry announce that they are selling a two-kilogramme tin of the grain at Sh140 or Sh6,300 a bag.
Unmoved by the price, the women pick kilos of it. They have no option, they are used to buying it all year round. Among the group of women and girls is Lucy Lekishon. Seven years ago, her husband was a commercial maize farmer who would sell hundreds of kilos of maize from their 10-acre farm.
“We used to transport over 200 bags of maize to the National Cereals and Produce Board depot in Mulot after a bumper harvest, it was laughter around this time of the year as we made money from farming,” said Ms Lekishon.
Things were however to change for the worse. For four years, they planted maize on their field and it kept failing. “The last three years have seen us not planting maize, we have been reduced to buying food at the centre,” she said.
Maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease has ravaged maize fields in Narok South for the past seven years.
The viral disease that started in Narok South has since spread to Trans Mara, Kilgoris in Narok County, Bomet, Nyamira, Kisii, Nandi and Nakuru counties.
Joseph Koech in Mulot was among the first farmers affected by the disease outbreak. Not to be deterred, he cleared his farm and replanted several times before giving up, just like Lekishon a few years later.
“We have learnt to brave the hunger that comes with not being able to plant our own food. We do not know which farm was first infected, but every farmer has been affected by the disease. The maize leaves turn yellow and the whole plant rots away within weeks. It spreads by the day,” said Mr Koech.
According to CABI, a not-for-profit scientific research firm, the MLN menace in Kenya was introduced by co-infection of maize by maize chlorotic mottle virus and sugarcane mosaic virus.
A recent survey by Global Maize Programme at the Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, and Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research programme, maize, said the spread of MNLD countrywide was at 28.5 per cent.
The spread of the disease has been immense, and has triggered a shortage of food in the country, with farmers losing between 40 and 100 per cent of their crops.
In terms of national food security, the assault on maize production has heralded a disaster. According to the Maize Production Early Harvesting report, both Bomet and Narok used to produce over 10 million kilos of maize a season, with close to a similar amount in the subsequent one.
South Rift with its two planting seasons provided the country with early harvests in May as it waited for the North Rift’s that would come in late September, up to December.
Despite the sorry situation, the government has done little to address the menace that was first announced by then Minister for Agriculture, Dr Sally Kosgei.
MLN is easily spread by the wind and can affect thousands of acres of farmland in a short time. The agriculture minister said the disease affected all varieties of maize and insisted that it was not seed-borne. “There is, therefore, no fear of spreading the disease through seed,” she said.
According to Prof Hamadi Boga, Principal Secretary for Crop Development and Agricultural Research, the disease is difficult to get rid off and the only way out is to have seeds resistant to the crop.
“We are asking the Kenya Seed company and other seed firms to sensitise affected farmers to use breeds that are resistant to the virus; this is the only way to address the situation,” said Prof Boga.
Kenya Seed Managing Director Azariah Soy said they have developed and screened varieties that have shown tolerance to the disease as part of cushioning farmers against losses that come with MLN attacks.
“The disease put to jeopardy a region that produces millions of bags of maize. The seeds have since been tested and released by the regulatory agency,” said Mr Soy.
He added, “We now have two new varieties - H6506 and H532 - that are resistant to the disease. We already have produced 50 metric tonnes of the seeds that we expect to launch next month.”
The seed company working jointly with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation farm in Naivasha, said the seeds have been cleared after going through the National Plants Trial (NPT).
The team has come up with 15 varieties of seeds containing the resistance traits; they are undergoing screening under NPT. The research is on the third generation’s production of the seed.
Suresh L. M, Scientist of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and MLN Management Global Maize Programme said the research is in its fourth and final process of coming up with hybrid maize seeds.
The new variety will withstand the pressures caused by co-infection of maize by maize chlorotic mottle and sugarcane mosaic viruses.
“We started research on the project in 2012, a year after the outbreak of the maize disease and we are happy that we almost have a breakthrough.
We have managed to come up with 15 varieties of maize seeds that we have released to KEPHIS for verification,” said Dr Suresh.