Seed scientists are hailing their next release of new finger millet varieties, due early next year, as a project that will impact some 10 million people in Kenya by improving the yields and incomes of the country’s millet farmers. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is currently conducting National Performance Trials (NPT) for the three, new, superior finger millet varieties, which researchers say will guarantee higher yields, tolerance to drought, Striga weed and blast disease.
The new varieties U-15, Gulu and Okahale-1 will initially be made available to seven largely finger millet growing regions in Western Kenya, which are currently growing indigenous varieties and improved variety-P-224, which was released in the 1990s. The regions have a combined population of 2.8 million people living on millet farming.
According to Dr Chrispus Oduori, KARI’s Principal Research Officer, the pioneer finger millet breeding project will affect 10 million people in the country in the long run. Each of the seven regions yearly commits at least 1000 hectares to finger millet cultivation, though the Teso region commits more. Across the whole country, there are 65,000 hectares under finger millet cultivation.
Yet there are still shortages of the crop. Processing giants like Unga Kenya Limited are processing at 50 per cent below capacity due to the lack of raw material, and are also importing millet from Tanzania to compensate for the shortfall.
The indigenous varieties that most farmers are using yield some 500kg to 700kg per hectare, although with fertilizer optimum yields can reach 1600kg. The yield of the P224 hybrid variety released in the 1990s is higher, at up to 2500 kg per hectare, but only around 10,000 farmers are using it, as many peasant farmers do not know of it.
However, the new varieties will yield 1100kg to 2900kg per hectare and are also “drought escaping and mature early,” said Dr Oduori. From planting, these 3 varieties take 110 to 115 days to mature, while the conventional varieties take over 130 days. They also have better malting qualities and due to their higher nutritional value are ideal for making baby foods.
The seven regions lined up for the seed launch are Gucha, Busia, Kisii, Teso, Nyamira, Marakwet and Bungoma, which have at least 700ml of rainfall, which the crop needs to grow. However, the crop has “wide adaptability,” said Dr Oduori and can grow in hot Coastal regions as well as the highlands of Kisii.
Finger millet delivers one annual harvest, with the planting season starting from the onset of the long rains in late February and harvesting in June to July.
The project’s managers also hope the Finger Millet project will offer a better alternative crop to maize.
Finger millet has better post harvest storage traits than maize. Unlike maize, once stored it doesn’t need chemicals to ward off grain borers like weevils. Dried finger millet can also be stored for over 10 years, without spoiling or requiring preservation chemicals.
The stakeholders involved in the project are Masinde Muliro University, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Kenya Agricultural Commodities Exchange, which is training farmers in marketing techniques, and the Gene Bank of Kenya, which is storing the germplasm to use in improving the traits of the finger millet.
The finger millet project is funded by Alliance for Green Revolution (AGRA) while the McKnight foundation has funded the technology dissemination venture.
The last KARI-released improved variety P-224 is available at Kenya Seed Company Outlets.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
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