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FOOD CRISIS: Two New Varieties of Vegetables on Kenyan Food Market

Miriam Gathigah

NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 28 2010 (IPS) - Agriculture remains one of the most significant economic activities in Kenya. It accounts for over 24 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with an estimated 70 percent of total production coming from small scale farmers who typically have about 2-5 acres of land, depending on the region.

Vegetable market in Kenya Credit: Miriam Gathigah

Vegetable market in Kenya Credit: Miriam Gathigah

But in spite of encouraging economic growth rates over the past decade, Kenya continues to face serious challenges in meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1 of eliminating extreme poverty and hunger.

Various Government reports show that over 50 percent of children under five years are underweight and/or are suffering stunted growth.

“Although the situation might seem bleak the government has, as a result of innovations by researchers, made various attempts to improve the agricultural sector, particularly in the field of horticulture,” explains Naomi Chepkorir, an Agricultural Officer from the Rift Valley Region which is Kenya’s bread basket.

According to the Policy Paper in the Horticultural Industry, the outcomes of accelerating the growth of horticultural production should encompass aspects such as alleviating poverty and improving food security.

“With regard to vegetable production, the government is working closely with researchers to not only improve the quality of vegetables but to also diversify the variety,” explains Catherine Kuria, a small scale farmer in Kinale, Central Kenya.

Crop experts have established that the best kale in the entire country comes from Kinale, in Central province.

Kale is also popularly known as “sakuma wiki”, a name that loosely translated means that it can sustain people throughout the week due to its extreme affordability, particularly for those who earn a dollar and below a day. It is thus the single most popular and available vegetable.

“In spite of its popularity, varieties of kale available to farmers are generally of poor quality, yield easily to diseases and their production is also low,” explains Catherine Kuria.

Vegetables are grown by an estimated 90 percent of Kenyan households, with Kale accounting for the highest production.

In a bid to improve food security and consequently alleviate hunger, Kenyans can now enjoy new varieties of kale that are more productive and can cope better with the unpredictable climatic changes across the country.

In May this year, the Kenya National Variety Release Committee authorised the release of two varieties of the improved kale seed and were published by the Ministry of Agriculture, as is stipulated in the Kenya’s Seeds and Plant Varieties Act.

Three more varieties will be released into the market once they are finally approved. This is a result of a seed-bulking project funded by the Center for Agricultural Bio-Science International (CABI) Africa, which is a science-based organisation specialising in agriculture.

“Seed bulking is an innovative strategy to increase access to reliable seed varieties at a rate affordable to particularly small-scale farmers who may not have the funds to buy expensive hybrid seeds.” expounds Naomi Chepkorir. “It is also a way of empowering poor households who directly depend on agriculture for subsistence.

The new varieties are an improvement of the kale seed that is already in the market and has been for many years.” This innovation is a key development in light of the United Nations proclamation that 2010 should be an international year of biodiversity, which is basically the diversification of animal and plants and a concept that underpins agriculture.

The licensing of new kale varieties is also in line with a government programme dubbed ‘Njaa Marufuku Kenya’ which basically means eliminating hunger in Kenya .This programme supports agricultural development initiatives targeting the poor in rural areas, where an estimated 60 percent live below a dollar a day.

The licensing of the new kale varieties has seen farmers, particularly from central Kenya where kale is grown in plenty; speak in favour of the innovation.

Alice Itoti from Central Kenya, one of the farmers involved in the process of growing and testing these new varieties says that, “I have been growing vegetables for ten years and I have observed a huge difference between the old and the new variety of kale. The new varieties have bigger leaves and are of a notably higher quality.”

“They also give a higher production which is good for commercial purposes. Most of my consumers who have tasted the old and the new prefer the new variety.”

As the country continues to grapple with food insecurity, with a large percentage of the population relying heavily on agriculture for both food and cash crops, innovative strategies to diversify crops can be part of the solution towards improving food options, and consequently contributing towards the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger.

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