Some 5,000 Kenyan farmers have benefited from a new scheme that has launched plant clinics countrywide, providing free tests and diagnosis for farmers to fend off pests and disease.
Under the auspices of the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International’s (CABI), the global plant clinic project has rolled out 20 clinics in the last six months, across Central, Eastern and Western and Rift Valley provinces, with 100 trained plant doctors, and has borrowed from the success of similar schemes in other countries.
Farmers visiting plant clinics in Bolivia and Bangladesh benefited by an average of $325 or a 24 per cent increase in net income and a 9 per cent increase in crop yields within a year of visiting the clinics. The plant clinics have also assisted international scientists in creating a pest and disease database with 45 new diseases having been identified and published globally since 2002.
Modeled on the human health concept, a plant clinic is a facility where farmers take samples of their sick plants to plant doctors who include local agronomists and extension agents who diagnose plant health problems and recommend pest management methods that are both affordable and locally available.
The advice may recommend pesticides to control insect pests and diseases or general crop management which may include crop rotation, fertilizer use, seed selection or other cultural practices.
The clinics are held in markets, outside farmer cooperative shops and next to bus terminals.
The success of the clinics has prompted diagnostic laboratories across the country to form an easily accessible network of research institutions including KEPHIS, KARI and the Ministry of Agriculture so that farmers can send samples for analysis.
Where necessary, infected plant samples that cannot be diagnosed at the plant clinics are referred to partner laboratories, giving the famers access to more expert diagnostic services. When the national diagnostic laboratories can’t help, samples are sent to CABI in the UK, which has an expert diagnostic service with an international reputation and accepts diseased plant samples from all countries.
Under the model, clinics have identified new diseases in regions that are difficult to monitor regularly, such as a new tomato viruses or early detection of bacterial wilt in potatoes.
Says Dr Eric Boa chief of Global Plant Clinic UK. “We can reduce crop losses by collecting and sharing vital information about plant health. With the right knowledge we can identify plant health problems, slow down the spread of plant pests and diseases and provide the correct treatments before yields are significantly affected. Plant clinics ensure that this knowledge is readily accessible to those who need it.”
Government agricultural policies have focused on integrated pest management (IPM), a pest control strategy aimed at reducing the use of pesticides. IPM has successfully tackled pesticide misuse and cut down farmers' reliance on chemicals — especially for insect pests, where pesticide abuse is a major concern. But it does not provide small farmers with basic health services to provide advice based on sound diagnosis, a gap the plant clinics are now seeking to seal.
“Last year in September, I planted maize on my three quarter acre piece of land expecting to get good returns but I lost 60 per cent of it due to maize stalk borers,” said Beth Wanjiku, a farmer who visited the plant clinic stationed at Wangige market in Kikuyu district. The retired civil servant, who has specialized in horticultural crops, explains that she visited the clinic when it was too late to save her maize.
But the clinic has already saved many farmers from agrovet dealers who have cashed in on farmers desperation by prescribing expensive pest control drugs that have not helped. Karanja Kinyanjui another farmer in Kikuyu District who supplies his produce to the famous Wakulima market spent Sh10,000 on pesticides prescribed to him by the agrovets for his potatoes and spinach to no avail. But diagnosis from the plant doctors encouraged him to spray wood ash onto his crops, which within one week wiped away the strange disease. “It still pains me to imagine that the agrovets fleeced me of my meager earnings. I have never paid a cent since I came to these plant clinics, they are free and the professional assistance I got from the plant doctors has changed my farm,” he said.
Plant doctors have noticed a similarity in the kind of pests and diseases in almost all farmers’ crops with maize stalk borer, nematodes and headsmut being among the most frequent. However, it is white fly infected crops that form 60 per cent of the cases reported. White fly is found on the leaves of many plants - both on the upper and lower surfaces – and feedson growing shoots, laying eggs that hatch into tiny white scales that remain attached to the underside of leaves.
The flies suck the sap of the plant, weakening the plant and introducing viruses that often kill the plant.
The plant doctors bemoan poor greenhouse management by famers as the greatest culprit in the spread of diseases and pests.
“Due to global warming, most farmers are opting for greenhouse but the problem is they are not able to construct them well and this attracts insect vectors, which, when feeding on the crops, transmit the diseases,” says Elizabeth Njoroge, a plant doctor at Wangige plant clinic, who also doubles up as the Divisional Extension Agricultural and Crops Officer in Kabete division.
Njoroge asserts that it has been a tall order trying to introduce innovative farming practices to rid farms of pests, especially crop rotation and spacing.
“The recommended spacing for most crops is 60 by 60cms. However, most farmers are eager to maximize on their yields and they will use smaller spacing of 15 by 15cms. They will get good outputs, but if the crops got infected, the pest or disease will spread very fast, and this will lead to more losses,” she said.
The plant clinics have come at a time when a rough dwarf disease from Uganda, a virus transmitted through the leaf hopper insect which greatly affects maize growth has put the Government on high alert. CABI has rolled out measures to shield farmers from imminent losses to their maize.
Negussie Efa, a Training and Research scientist involved in the plant clinic concept says two clinics have been set up at both Kapkoi and Kwanza areas bordering Uganda, while plant doctors have also been trained to educate farmers on spotting the signs of the virus.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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