Sorghum - a new hope in dry times

While droughts devastate maize yields in parts of Kenya, IFAD supports farmers to grow more resilient crops, such as short-stemmed sorghum.

In Kenya, 2.6 million people have found themselves short of food due to consecutive failed rains and a severe drought predicted to be the worst since 2011. Crops are dry, yields are down, livestock are dying and farm families are becoming increasingly worried. Arid and semi-arid lands make up more than 80 per cent of Kenya’s land mass and are home to approximately 36 per cent of the population. Due to a heavy reliance on rain-fed agriculture, the local farmers suffer disproportionately when droughts threaten.

One affected farmer, Joyce Muthangya, recently took part in the taping of an episode of IFAD’s video series "Recipes for Change," which also featured Kenyan celebrity chef Ali Mandhry. Joyce is a family farmer based near Mwingi Town, 180 Km east of Nairobi. She grows maize, millet, sorghum, green grams and other traditional crops. She collects water from a local shallow well but says must now dig deeper and deeper. "When I was younger, we would dig maybe two feet into the ground and would find loads of water. Now, we are at six feet and are finding barely any," Joyce tells chef Ali. "I worry that when my grandchildren are fetching water, they will be digging 12 feet down and won't find any."
Joyce says her crops are withering. She has had to stop farming maize, which is considered both a staple and cash crop in Kenya, as her harvests were declining due to moisture stress. Although prized in Kenya, maize is extremely water intensive, and as such, in drought conditions fails more regularly than not. With help from an IFAD-supported project, however, Joyce says she is now cultivating sorghum and green grams which cope better in the dry conditions. In addition, she practices intercropping, a farming technique promoted by IFAD.

To help local farmers like Joyce deal with changing conditions, chef Ali learns the IFAD-supported project is involved in every aspect of farming – from seed to plate. For example, he’s told farmers are taught land preparation practices to ensure as much moisture is conserved as possible, this includes employing conservation agriculture techniques.

Esther Magambo, Senior Programme Coordinator, also tells the celebrity chef that the project works to get farmers the most appropriate seed and the best fertiliser, while ensuring farmers have the skills to get the maximum yields possible. "Improved productivity in cereal and pulse crop yields will enable farmers to produce food even in dry conditions and could help reduce the estimated three million Kenyans suffering from poor nutrition and chronic food insecurity," she says. Farmers in some areas, she adds, have doubled their yields despite the dry conditions, providing food for their households and communities.

With what he learns from IFAD’s team on the ground, chef Ali sets out to cook a traditional sorghum meal with Joyce. The dish, called Muviku, is an extremely nutritious traditional meal, made for weddings and other festive occasions. The harvesting and dehulling of sorghum is extremely labour intensive if done using the traditional methods. Chef Ali discovers the project promotes machines that can dehull dry grains, which is also great as it means the sorghum can be commercially exported. The traditional dehulling is done wet, and the sorghum must be cooked immediately afterwards. "The dehulling was great fun, but hard work! Especially in this heat,” says chef Ali. “I think it's great that the project has recognised this, and the potential that sorghum has to replace maize as the cool cash crop of Kenya is high.” He adds: “There are issues with sorghum that need addressing though. Maize is still at the moment seen as the cool dish, what people want. I think the trick will be convincing the youth, especially in the cities, that sorghum is the future. On paper its already better: less water, cheaper, more recipes [as it can replace both rice and potatoes in other recipes] and more nutritious. What we need, what I will be doing, is trying to promote new recipes, such as fusion dishes that use sorghum. Make it cool again."

The Kenya Cereal Enhancement Programme - Climate Resilient Agricultural Livelihoods Window (KCEP-CRAL) is helping 95,000 farmers like Joyce become food secure, in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs). They're channelling US$153 million in development financing (with US$10 million specifically for adaptation). The project is co-funded by IFAD with funds from its Adaptation of Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP), the European Union and the Government of Kenya.