Why attention has shifted to millet crop

Turkana Alice Amana prepares millet produce at Natirai farm Loima Sub Location Turkana County. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Millet is one of the oldest food crops consumed by Kenyans in different parts of the country. With time, many farmers abandoned growing millet and opted for the tastier and more promising maize.

With a serious food and nutrition security issue, there is renewed interest in growing millet and the United Nations has earmarked 2023 as an international year of the millet.

According to Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) that is championing the campaign on millets, as the global agrifood systems face challenges to feed an ever-growing global population, resilient cereals like millets provide an affordable and nutritious option, and efforts need to be scaled-up to promote their cultivation.

“Millets are incredible ancestral crops with high nutritional value. Millets can play an important role and contribute to our collective efforts to empower smallholder farmers, achieve sustainable development, eliminate hunger, adapt to climate change, promote biodiversity, and transform agrifood systems,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said recently.

Greater millet production can support the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and provide decent jobs for women and youth.

Good old days

“Millet and cassava were used a lot in the 1950s and 1960s as the crops could be crushed easily by traditional stones,” says 88-year-old Sylvia Nekesa from Kakamega County.

Nekesa says millet is highly nutritious and people who used to eat ugali made from millet and cassava flour were strong and used to live longer.  

For Kenya, millet offers great prospects because the number of undernourished people in Kenya has been growing due to drought, famine and economic hardship.

The costs of food items are currently unaffordable to majority who live below poverty line. So, Kenya must consider millet, as a weapon against hunger.

“This will help us have enough food to feed the 50 million people in order to have a healthy and a working population,” says economic policy analyst Charles Ayoro. 

Agricultural research scientist Dr Meshack Odera Muga notes that though climate change has an impact on millet it still has great potential.

Going forward, international nongovernmental organisations are now partnering with national research institutions to breed improved varieties of millets for distribution to smallholder farmers. Dr Muga observes that this move is important because the seed’s genetic material accounts a major part of its productivity. The environment, such as rain and soil, and crop husbandry practices, such as fertiliser application and planting methods, account for the rest, notes the research scientist.

Developing new crop varieties through modern technologies is a key to unlocking higher millet and sorghum yields.

The challenges facing millet farming are, farmers lack money, the high costs of farm inputs like fertiliser, lack of quality seed varieties, pests, weeds among others.

Some extra money for agricultural research is also needed.

According to Dr Muga, western Kenya has the best climatic condition to grow millet and all efforts should be directed in the region to support the farmers and millet farming.

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