A farmer checks on her sorghum crop in Busia

On a Tuesday morning at Nasuna village in Busia County’s Bundalangi constituency, farmers gather at a home under a tree. They speak in a mixture of both low and moderate tones as they discuss three varieties of sorghum which they each had cultivated during the last season. The farmers are having discussions during a feedback meeting organized by the Genetic Resources Research Institute (GeRRI), commonly known as the National Genebank and which has been supporting farmers in western Kenya in getting access to sorghum seeds of different varieties.

“My variety ‘A’ yielded for me the best harvest, but variety ‘C’ was badly attacked by birds, I wonder if they thought I was farming for them at the expense of my own children,” said Ann Wanjala, a farmer.

Although she felt concerned that one variety was attacked by birds, another farmer actually envied her, because she did not harvest anything. All her crop she said, was destroyed by floods owing to her flat piece of land amid poor drainage and proximity to the mighty river Nzoia known for breaking its banks especially during rainy seasons. 

A view of mkwaju variety of sorghum in the farm

For Benard Wanjala, a variety locally known as Mkwaju performed best. It is characterized by a tall stem, with a bent head, shaping into what looks like a walking stick. This variety, according to farmers, used to be cultivated in the area long ago, but gradually ‘got lost’.

“I remember as a young boy we used to cut the stems of Mkwaju sorghum and use them as walking sticks imitating our grandparents,’ recalled Wycliffe Otayo, a farmer from Bulimba village, Funyula.

Like other farmers, he did not notice how this variety of sorghum vanished from farms and granaries, only for them to be ‘reunited’ with this and other varieties by GeRRI. GeRRI is one of the semi-autonomous institutes under the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO)

During the last season GeRRI distributed seeds of 51 different varieties of sorghum to 511 farmers drawn from 26 groups in Busia and Siaya counties. In what can commonly be translated as ‘citizen science,’ farmers and scientists have been walking a journey of testing and selecting the best varieties for the two counties and their neighborhood.

In partnership with Rongo University, GeRRI has been implementing the Seeds for Resilience project (SFR), which is an initiative that is being coordinated by the Crop Trust with funding from the German government via the German Development Bank (KfW). The objective of sharing seeds with farmers was to use GeRRI’s germplasm collection to enhance diversity as a way of enhancing resilience and adaptation to climate change and its effects.

GeRRI is endowed with numerous varieties which have been collected over decades and can be used in enhancing food and nutrition security. “People need to know that GeRRI is not a museum but is a place where seeds are not just conserved, but efforts are made to use them for improving climate resilience, enhancing environmental sustainability and supporting livelihoods” noted Dr. Peterson Wambugu, a Principal Research Scientist at GeRRI. Instead, he urged farmers, breeders and other interested groups to take advantage of the wide genetic diversity that is conserved at GeRRI for breeding, research and direct use.

According to Dr. Peterson Wambugu, the future of enhancing food security amid climate change lies in ] growing a diversity of crops and varieties.   Research has shown that with the growing problem of climate change, varieties that will possess necessary adaptation will most likely need to be sourced from other countries and regions. This makes genebanks particularly useful as they hold ecotypes obtained from many regions around the world. “In Nyando, we had trials for sorghum and millet varieties from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and those that were sourced from outside performed best,” noted Dr. Wambugu

GeRRI Institute Director Dr. Desterio Nyamongo sought to know from farmers their preferred way of ensuring that the sorghum seeds they had regained from the genebank reached a larger number of farmers in order to ensure sustainability. “We would want to establish community seed banks whereby we can save and borrow seeds at an interest,” said Maximilla Onyura, a farmer from Samia, Funyula. This way, she added, farmers would borrow seeds and return double the amount they had taken, thus resulting to a multiplication of the same.

Additionally, farmers have been sharing with their neighbours across villages who had not benefitted directly from seeds from GeRRI.

Dr. Nyamongo urged farmers to ensure that they do not lose the varieties that have been regained as had happened before.

He gave an example of Ethiopia where there are custodian farmers who take care of saved seeds and other farmers borrow and return at interest after harvest.

“You do not have to concentrate on the varieties that you don’t like, but capitalize and multiply what you prefer so that there is no more loss of varieties,” said Dr. Nyamongo

He termed sorghum as a traditional food that is not only rich in nutrients, but also embedded in cultures and resilient to climate change and its effects.