Technology best bet for breaking chronic hunger cycle, says expert

Striga, commonly known as witchweed, has been ravaging maize in many parts of the Rift Valley and Western Kenya, threatening the survival of millions who depend on the crop for food and livelihood.

African Agricultural Technology Foundation has been involved in generating drought and weed tolerant varieties. Denis Odunga spoke to Dr Gospel Omanya, the senior manager in charge of projects management and deployment at AATF.

The planting season is here and the government is warning of yet another bout of food shortage in six months. What needs to be done to ensure Kenya breaks the vicious cycle of food insecurity?

Indeed, food security is a critical challenge to millions of Kenyans at the moment. The current situation, like similar situations in the past, is occasioned by a combination of factors, notably severe drought, pests, diseases and vicious weeds.

In such circumstances, the government is expected to move swiftly with relief food supply to the affected communities. However, this can only provide a temporary solution.

In my view, a long-term solution lies with investment in improved technologies such as drought-tolerant crops, irrigation, pest and weed management innovations.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), in collaboration with partners from the public and private sectors, recently released 11 drought-tolerant maize hybrids to mitigate the challenge of recurrent drought in Kenya.

These hybrids are products from the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) partnership that is developing and commercialising the drought-tolerant maize hybrids in eastern and southern Africa.

Further, AATF and its partners, BASF and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (Cimmyt), are working together to deploy a technology known as StrigAway to control the vicious Striga weed (popularly known as witchweed) that adversely affects maize production especially in western Kenya. In Kenya, the partnership is working with seed companies to commercialise the StrigAway maize varieties.

Maize yields are falling in Kenya’s grain basket. Is it time Kenyans took to other crops? If yes, which ones and why?

Maize is a staple food crop for Kenyans. With technologies such as drought tolerant hybrids and StrigAway varieties that can effectively mitigate pest and disease attack, coupled by irrigation, the maize production can be greatly enhanced.

In addition, other crops can also be cultivated to complement the household food security requirements. These include sorghum, millets, and legumes like cowpeas and beans.

You mentioned droughtTEGO crops. What does this mean?

DroughtTEGO is brand name for the new drought-tolerant maize hybrids that have been developed by the Wema partnership. The name “TEGO” is Latin and it means “shield”. Thus DroughtTEGO hybrids “shield” the maize crop from drought by enabling efficient use of available water.

Does this mean the answer lies with technology? And is Kenya ready for GM technology?

In the current scenario where climate change is ravaging the country, I must say use of appropriate technology is critical to meeting our food security. This includes use of improved seeds, fertiliser, irrigated agriculture and application of best agronomic practices.

You’ve talked about Striga weed control in western Kenya. Tell us more.

Striga is a vicious weed that perennially curtails cereal production, in particular maize, in Kenya’s lake basin region. It is popularly called “the witcweed” due to the bewitched stunted look of maize crop infested by Striga.

Fortunately, an innovative solution in the form of the StrigAway maize technology exists. The use of the technology has seen farmers who had previously abandoned maize cultivation altogether due to Striga now enjoy improved harvests and enhanced household food security.

Efforts for Striga weed management in Kenya have been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and recently the Striga Control Partnership received support from the Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation Initiative to out-scale commercialisation of the innovative StrigAway Maize Technology in East Africa.

The StrigAway maize technology comprises maize varieties, which are tolerant to a herbicide called Imazapyr and innovative seed coating techniques to apply low dose herbicide coating (20g for maize seeds enough to cultivate one hectare of farmland).

AATF has been in operation for the last 10 years. What is AATF’s mandate and how does it operate?

AATF was established in 2003 and has been addressing the critical challenge for agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa — that of access and delivery of appropriate agricultural technologies for use by smallholder farmers. Use of appropriate technology is key to reversing the low agricultural productivity in Africa and unlocking the potential of African smallholders.

What kind of technologies does AATF access for use by smallholder farmers?

The technologies AATF accesses vary depending on the priority needs identified by farmers and can include chemical, mechanical, biological, biotechnological and process-based solutions.

**AATF is also involved in the development of drought tolerant GM maize varieties through Wema. Please explain how the Wema maize will benefit small-scale farmers in Kenya and beyond with their yields? **

Wema is developing both conventional (non-GM) and GM drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize hybrids. Currently the first 11 conventional DroughtTEGO maize hybrids have been commercially released in Kenya.

In the first season of commercialisation, over 100,000kg have been made available for sale and cultivation by farmers. Cultivation is on-going in western and eastern Kenya regions. The TEGO hybrids will provide the smallholder farmers with enhanced insurance against the ravages of drought and a chance for better harvest under both drought and optimal climatic conditions.

How many of these varieties are with farmers (and where are they being grown?)

Currently there is No GM variety in the market. They are still under development. However, as mentioned above, the conventional drought-tolerant maize varieties are already with farmers in Kenya.

How can farmers access these varieties?

The DroughtTEGO and Strigaway maize varieties are available from several seed companies and agro-dealers in target areas — Lake basin, South Rift, and eastern Kenya.

As a scientist, what’s the biggest challenge facing the Kenyan farmer?

Access to farm inputs, including fertilisers and quality seeds due to resource constraints facing many farmers. The challenge is compounded by climate change- drought and new diseases such as the Maize lethal Necrosis (MLN).

Finally, what’s the regulatory framework for adoption of GM crops in Kenya?

Kenya has a biosafety law, The Biosafety Act, 2009, that provides a legal framework governing all activities to do with GMOs including research, field testing and commercialisation. This law is implemented through various regulations that were gazetted by the Government of Kenya.