Embu farmers now jump on cruising Bt cotton bandwagon

Embu farmers explain how Bt cotton performs. [Peter Theuri, Standard]

“If you gave me the old one, I would tell you ‘No, no. Go away, I do not want it,” Magondu says and then his brow furrows as if he is in very deep thought.

“The old one, you cannot even remotely compare. The bollworms made it their lodging, and that is not everything, even.”

In Embu and Kirinyaga counties, Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) cotton is the most prized arrival since sliced bread.

Daniel Magondu is one of the farmers who decided to try it, and his face lights up when the cameras roll.

“We used to spray 12 times in a year. It is now three times, at most four times. One crop produced ten balls. You see this one?” He pushes a hand beneath leaves to expose bulging buds. “It could give you 200.”

We have to ascertain he is not being overenthusiastic. The other farmers in the field, on this study tour with early career professionals, have even better numbers.

Joseph Nyaga, whose three-acre sprawl of the crop has the finesse of a model farm, pays glowing tribute to the Bt cotton.

“One acre of the old one gave 300 kilos of cotton. Now for every acre, I get one and a half tonnes.” That is five times the yield, and the farmers just won’t give it up.

He used to plant ten seeds in a hole. Now, two cut it because of higher germination. 

It also helps that the Bt cotton matures way faster than the conventional one. Irene Karimi says that in half a year, the first harvest is ready. In older times, before the genetically modified crop hit the market, it took the farmers around nine months to pick the first cotton balls.

Then they picked once and that was it for the plant. Now, they harvest twice, and the produce in the second harvest is almost always superior in quantity.

Genetically modified by insertion of genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, the Bt cotton plants produce toxins that cause damaging bollworms on cotton to be lethargic and to die in droves, causing limited harm to the crop.

The farmers now sell a kilo of Grade A cotton at Sh72 to ginneries, and should a project that is in the pilot stage take off, they will be making profits many times what they do.

A small micro-ginner, which is portable and fabricated using mostly locally available materials, was developed by researchers from Kirinyaga University. The farmers already have a few of these, which they use to separate their lint from the seeds, and there it gets interesting.

The fine lint now goes for Sh200 a kilo (the estimates reached Sh250 in some areas). The farmer can sell the seed separately, making Sh62 from a kilo of the seed. The seed can be crushed to provide edible oil, which some of the farmers already do on a small scale, and what is left of the seed makes cotton seed cake, a precious animal feed.

Farmers growing Bt cotton allayed fears that Bt cotton interfered with biodiversity, with Mr Nyaga, who has been farming the crop for four years, saying that these have been the greatest in his farming life.

For 17 years before 2020, he cultivated conventional cotton and did not reap anything of note.

He intercrops and, like many of his peers, does crop rotation. And every crop thrives, he says. For him and many like him, the rekindling of the love with cotton is one of the grandest stories they can tell, and those who spelt doom are now slowly jumping onto the bandwagon.

There is an uptick in the economic fortunes of farmers in the region.

National Biosafety Authority (NBA) Chief Executive Roy Mugiira, who visited the farmers, spoke about the country's robust biosafety regulatory space and assured them that the agency was keen on only allowing for the cultivation of what has been thoroughly checked and passed as safe.

“You can be sure that what we have seen to it that what you are farming ticks all boxes. There have been many people saying genetically modified crops do this and that, you know, unpalatable, yet untrue, things. There is no chance that we would allow what hurts farmers and our country. You are safe,” he said.

Cotton was a beloved crop in many regions in Kenya but with decreasing productivity and falling prices, it lost its lucrativeness.

“In the 90s, the once robust textile industry started going down, and ginning facilities disappeared. Right now, we have only six remaining, with only five of them operational, and our farmers in this region have to go to Kitui, Mwingi, or Meru for ginning,” says Denis Muchangi, a lecturer at Kirinyaga University.

Scientists say the successful adoption of agricultural biotechnology will be a key factor in unlocking Kenya’s full agricultural potential, necessary in the face of climate change, rapidly increasing population, and shrinking arable lands.

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Institute’s (Kalro) research scientist Dr Martin Mwirigi appeals to the private sector, which benefits from the proliferation and uptake of biotech, to contribute actively to its development.

“We cannot sit back and wait to just be beneficiaries and to make profits out of science whose growth we do not want to support. Most of the research and uptake is funded by foreign investors, and our local private sector needs to do better to support the science,” he says.