One of the most important agricultural activities in Kenya contributing to food security is maize farming.
According to Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), maize, scientifically known as Zea mays L continues to be the most important staple food in Kenya.
Veteran maize farmer, Grace Atieno from Gem, Siaya County says every part of the maize plant has economic value — the grain, leaves, stalk, tassel, and cob can all be used to produce a large variety of food and non-food products for humans and animals.
In sub-Saharan Africa, maize is mostly grown by small-scale farmers, generally for subsistence as part of mixed agricultural systems. The systems often lack inputs such as fertiliser, improved seed, irrigation, and labour.
The ideal climate for maize farming is found in areas with an altitude ranging from 900 to 2,500 metres above sea level with a mean annual rainfall of 600 to 1,200 mm, well distributed throughout the growing season. Maize can also grow in drier areas with the help of irrigation.
Maize can grow well in a wide range of soils, but it performs best in well-drained, fertile soils with a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5. It should have good organic matter content to improve soil fertility and water-holding capacity
“The soil should, first of all, be cleared and tilled to provide good seedbed for the maize. Soil testing is recommended to determine the nutrient status of the soil and to guide fertiliser application,” Atieno advices.
Maize is always planted through direct seeding. The ideal time for planting is at the beginning of the rainy season to ensure that there is enough moisture in the soil. The recommended spacing for maize in Kenya is 75cm between rows and 30cm between plants, and a depth of five to 10cm.
During planting, a teaspoonful of Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) fertiliser should be placed into each planting hole, mixed thoroughly with the soil, and then the seeds placed.
Foliar fertilizers are applied to the leaves of the maize plants. phosphorous-rich fertilizer promotes early crop establishment and should be applied to the young plants at a rate of 50 g per 20 litres of water.
Top dressing with Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) fertilizer should be done after two to three weeks after planting. Apply one teaspoonful of CAN fertilizer at the base of each plant in a ring or along the row, about 15 cm away from the plant.
“The timely application of fertilizers is crucial for successful maize farming in Kenya. Farmers should ensure that they apply the recommended basal, top dressing, and foliar fertilizers at the appropriate times to ensure optimum yields,” said Atieno.
Pest and disease management
Common pests include maize stem borer, fall armyworm and aphids. Early detection can help control the pests. Additionally, farmers can plant resistant maize varieties and use targeted pesticides.
Common maize diseases are maize lethal necrosis, maize streak virus and grey leaf spot. Use disease resistant varieties to avoid dealing with such diseases.
Crop Rotation: Rotating maize with non-host crops helps break the life cycles of pests and pathogens, reducing their buildup in the soil.
“Look out for the weeds such as striga. The clean the farm the healthier the maize plant. Clear all the weeds until the maize plant flowers, his avoid competition for nutrients,” said Atieno.
Maize is harvested after three to four months for the short season varieties and up to 10 months or more for the long season varieties. Harvesting can be done while the maize is green or when dry. The choice of harvesting method depends on the intended use of the maize.
Maize should be properly dried before storage to prevent spoilage due to fungal growth or insect infestation. Proper drying of maize also helps to preserve the quality of the grain.
Since maize is staple, the market will always be available. Production per acre depends on growth conditions. A bag of maize can range from Sh4,500 to Sh6,500.