Crop scientists search for better sorghum variety

Saturday October 25 2014

A sorghum farmer inspects his crop. Scientists

A sorghum farmer inspects his crop. Scientists are testing out varieties to get a multi-purpose strain to boost food security and lower poverty in African households. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By BONIFACE MWANGI

Top crop scientists and researchers from Kenya and Tanzania are trying to establish a sustainable sorghum crop capable of multiple uses.

The objective is to support the development of new sorghum multi-purpose varieties that are higher yielding and adapted to both biotic and abiotic (insects and diseases) stresses in the arid and semi-arid agro ecologies of eastern Kenya and in the northern and central zones of Tanzania.  

Researchers from the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Africa Harvest Biotechnology International Foundation (Africa Harvest) have brought together key collaborators and partners to review the project and plan the way forward.

“The project will bring together partners engaged in activities from technology development to dissemination to uptake,” said Dr Henry Ojulong, cereal breeder at ICRISAT.

According to Dr Ojulong, the target group is the resource constrained smallholder farmers agro dealers, processors and consumers in the arid and semi-arid lands, in 10 districts in eastern region of Kenya and in northern and central zones of Tanzania. 

The farmers will benefit from training in sustainable sorghum production, access to seeds of improved multiple-uses sorghum varieties and linkages to markets. Dr Ojulong also said that the project will use established government structures and personnel at community and district level to provide such training.

The project, dubbed “Development of a robust commercially sustainable sorghum for multiple-uses value chain in Kenya and Tanzania” is aimed at improving the livelihoods of poor rural smallholder farming households in arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya and Tanzania.

They also want to develop partnerships with private seed companies and agro-dealers in order to provide quality seed and other relevant inputs to farmers.

Saleem Esmail, managing director of the Western Seed Company said, “We are ready to partner with all the stakeholders and produce the seed if the market is available.”

According to a studying 2004 by Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asareca), sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop globally and the third most important crop after maize and beans in the East and Central Africa region.

The finding also indicated that much of the sorghum is grown by small-scale farming households operating at the margins of subsistence and is the main staple food crop for approximately 100 million small-scale farmers.

“Indeed, because of its broad adaptation, sorghum is categorised by Asareca as one of the climate-change ready crops,” said Dr Ojulong.

Sorghum production in the East and Central Africa region, he said is characterised by low productivity and extensive, low-input cultivation.

Of the more than 15 sorghum varieties released in Kenya and Tanzania for food uses, Dr Ojulong said six varieties Macia, Sima, Tegemeo, Sila, Kari I Mtama 1 and Gadam have been tested in the field and laboratory and found to have good food and non-food use attributes. 

At the same time, he acknowledged, the quantity of animal feed produced is currently very low and does not meet the existing demands. 

“There is increasing competition for ingredients since most animal feed producers use ingredients that compete with human food sources. To overcome these challenges, the poultry feed industry lead by Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania and University of Nairobi have been testing affordable feed compositions and regimes for rural and urban poultry keepers,” Dr Ojulong said.

The aim, he added is to develop poultry feeds that are of high quality, use alternative ingredients that do not compete with human food sources and that are affordable for the majority of farmers.

The Resource into Use programme in Tanzania has indicated that approximately 31,200 tonnes of non-tannin sorghum is needed annually to produce enough feed in the country.

This can replace maize profitably if the price of sorghum is competitive enough and modalities of marketing the surplus grain are developed to offer farmers in arid and semi arid areas with a ready sorghum grain market.