Hybrid maize at Kitale Show in Trans Nzoia county. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

I have spent more than 30 years of my life farming on a small piece of land in Nakuru. In those three decades, it has never been as challenging to be a farmer as it is today. The yield I can generate on my smallholding can simply not keep up with the cost of inputs to produce food and an income for my family.

In addition to these economic challenges, the climate is increasingly unpredictable with drought periods longer and more severe than usual. There are new pests and diseases such as fall armyworm (FAW) damaging my maize fields and those of other farmers across the country. This is on top of fighting off old enemies like stem borers that require us to spray against these pests multiple times during the season to save our crops.

I am not alone in seeing how especially smallholder farmers are locked in an uphill battle against pests, disease, climate change, rising input costs and the cost of living becoming more expensive. We have to do something to protect our crops more efficiently, produce better yields and improve farmer income.

The AGRA Strategy Report of 2023 supports my observations that agricultural productivity in Africa has remained the lowest in the world between 2015 and 2020. Improving agricultural productivity as well as dealing with the above tough agricultural challenges requires game-changing solutions and not business-as-usual recommendations that have not helped smallholder farmers keep up with the mounting challenges of the past few decades.

As a village-based advisor who regularly interacts with farmers locally and nationally, most farmers in Kenya today are looking for all available solutions in the toolbox that can help them deal with several challenges facing agriculture today. For example, early this year, farmers in my county frequently asked me if there is a better maize variety I knew of that could withstand drought conditions better than local varieties. Currently, the maize variety that has proven to perform best is the hybrid DK777 but its availability in recent seasons has been under pressure due to the demand outperforming supply. This limited available amount of improved seeds leaves farmers quite desperate for other options. It makes them vulnerable to get whatever is left on the market for which some might even be fake seeds branded falsely as high-value hybrids.

This brings us to consider a new approach to solve the issue of hybrid maize seed options for farmers. Potential options such as biotech maize developed to withstand drought and certain insect pests remain inaccessible to farmers because of court cases stopping the lifting of the ban on GMOs. These court cases are normally filed by activists who have never spent a day on the farm and are out of touch with the real struggles that farmers go through to feed their homes and communities. There is no real farmer I know who would go to court to challenge anything that gives them more options for what to grow on their farm. Our country needs to emulate other countries such as Nigeria and South Africa that are creating more options for farmers by allowing for commercialisation of biotech crops. Helping us farmers to have the freedom to access improved seed options is good for our homes, communities, and Kenya’s overall food security. 

My ask to all the seed companies attending The Africa Seed Traders Association (AFSTA) congress for this year is to deliberate on the issue of biotech seeds and how to make these seeds more accessible to smallholder farmers in Kenya now.

My call to all stakeholders and policymakers involved in the agricultural sector is to prioritize helping farmers have access to improved seeds. Specifically, stakeholders such as the seed sector and industry play a vital role in addressing farmers’ seed challenges. I humbly request the seed sector to rise to the occasion of supporting farmers’ access to quality and improved seeds.

[Michael Waciira is a Village Based Advisor Cereal Growers Association]