To get best harvest, use certified seeds
Of what importance is good quality seed to a farmer? “The quality of a seed determines the quality and quantity of the harvest,” says Benjamin Kivuva.
Dr Kivuva is the assistant director in charge of seed production systems at Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro).
When planting, farmers have high expectations. Take Francisca Kitheka, for instance. She farms maize, beans and sweet potatoes in Yatta, Machakos County.
“My expectation is a bumper harvest,” she says. “And not only that: I also expect good quality seeds to plant in the next few seasons.”
It was therefore a shock for Francisca between 2012 and 2015 when the seeds she used in second and third generations weren’t yielding to her expectations.
She had farmed indigenous crop varieties for long and was willing to try ‘magic’ hybrid seeds that she had been told yielded high volumes.
“In 2013 I went to an Agro Vet and bought maize seeds. That year I got a good harvest,” she says.
Francisca thought to herself that she could pick good quality grains from the harvest and set them aside as seeds – for growing in the next season. “It is what we do for us rural farm folk,” she says.
To her shock, in 2014, harvest decreased by almost 50 per cent. And in 2015, the seeds barely germinated.
Francisca was distraught. “I did not understand what was happening,” she says.
She resolved to go back to growing indigenous (what she calls kienyeji) crop varieties. “They do not lose vigour and yield nearly the same every planting season,” she says.
Since then, Francisca started her own in-house seed bank – which she says she will derive seeds to plant.
In 2017, Janet Moraa bought sorghum seeds from a local seed company.
Moraa says: “I was expecting the seeds to germinate within two weeks.” Three weeks after planting there was nothing much to her shock.
“The seeds did not germinate – not even one,” she notes. Luckily for Moraa, she had kept her receipts from the seed shop.
“I went back and reported to them that the seeds did not germinate. The attendants asked me to check the batch number.
“It turned out the seeds had overstayed in the shop. Begging the question, why wouldn’t they remove such from their stock?”
Whether your experience has been similar to Francisca’s or Moraa’s does not really matter. The big question is: how can a farmer ensure they have the right seeds to yield abundant and healthy harvest?
Factors to consider before buying
Buy only certified seeds:
How would you tell what to buy from the vast market out there?
The best place to start, says Simon Maina, the current acting GM in charge of Quality Assurance at Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), is to go for certified seeds.
Kephis is the government regulatory agency responsible for assurance on the quality of agriculture inputs and produce.
As such, Kephis is the only body with powers to bestow quality upon seeds available commercially in Kenya.
“Our work ranges from licensing seed processers to certifying the seeds before they are put in the market,” Maina says.
According to Maina, all packaging for seeds should have a scratchable strip with a Kephis logo on it.
He says: “Before buying, scratch the strip to reveal the hidden code. Send the code via SMS to 1393. You should be able to receive a message with details such as the type of crop, variety, lot number, company name and date seed was tested.”
Maina says the seed buyer should verify if the information in the message corresponds to the information on the packaging.
“If they don’t correspond you should not buy. Those would be counterfeit seeds that would likely not give the results the farmer is expecting,” he says.
And yes, there are counterfeit seeds in Kenya.
The age of the seed :
Living things age. Seeds are living things. Seeds contain embryonic plants, lying dormant, waiting to break their protective coats and push through the soil.
“Seeds should not be stored in the shelves for long. The maximum period of time seeds can be kept before planting is dependent on the crop type and variety, says Maina. “For maize seeds, the date of testing should not be older than 12 months.”
For vegetables, Maina explains, the seeds shouldn’t be older than nine months.
“Seeds decrease in vigour over time. They are best used when their vigour is intact,” he says.
Like Moraa, a farmer may purchase seeds that have stayed on the shelves for years. The onus is on the farmer to determine if the seeds are within planting age.
Do not recycle hybrid seeds
Grace Gitu, a seed expert at Africa Seed Trade Association (Afsta) says: “Hybrid seeds are created by crossing two plants carrying certain desired qualities. Those qualities are initially enhanced through self-pollination. Their first generation offspring are called ‘F1 hybrids’.”
Hybrid seeds yield a bumper harvest that is usually uniform in nature.
Because the parent plants are genetically different, hybrids have ‘hybrid vigour’ resulting in increased growth, size, yield or other characteristics over those of the parents.
However, when a hybrid is pollinated with another hybrid, the offspring will not have hybrid vigour and, in fact, will grow poorly and have inferior performance.
“Therefore, for a farmer to maintain their high quality harvest, they will always need to buy new hybrid seeds,” Grace says.
Hybrid seeds cannot therefore be planted in subsequent generations if the farmer is still hoping for the same yield – like Francisca did.
Disease/pest free seeds: It is a Kephis requirement that all seeds pass phytosanitary controls. “They must be free from pests and diseases,” says Maina. This, he adds, is meant to stem seed-borne diseases.
These result from pathogens – bacteria, fungus, or viruses – that can live on the surface or interior of the seed and have the potential to spread the disease to the next season’s crop.
“This is why we insist on certified seeds,” says Maina. Certified seeds have gone through treatment to rid them of all these pathogens as well as pests.”
But what if a farmer, for some reason, cannot buy certified seeds?
The average Kenyan farmer does not have the capacity to treat seeds by themselves. However, Dr Kivuva says, the farmer should be keen to check the seeds critically.
The naked eye can’t see much in terms of pathogens. However, Kivuva says, it can see if the seed is broken, discoloured, injured or infected with a visible pest.
Diseased seeds pass the disease to the germinating plants, which do the same to next generation seeds. Not using diseased seeds is therefore the surest way to curtail the disease.
Buy seeds for your geographical zone:
Within a species, there are varieties. A plant variety is a more precisely defined group of plants, selected from within a species, with a common set of characteristics.
Varieties have differences in the shape, colour and size of the plant. There are also less perceptible characteristics like yield or resistance to diseases.
Modern plant varieties are those obtained after a systematic and scientific process of selection and breeding.
Plant breeding leads to increased crop yield. However, other advantages of breeding include adaptation to new agricultural areas, among others.
When buying seeds from the Agro Vet or a stockist, Kephis advises farmers to check and confirm that the seed variety is meant for the intended geographical zone.
“Kephis have numbers indicated on the packets indicating the suitability of the crop variety for your area,” notes Grace.
A farmer should ask to be issued with seeds that will do well where they are intended to be grown. For instance, a variety meant for Kitale won’t likely perform the same way in Machakos.
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