This is the first of two articles on the One Acre Fund in Kenya. Read part two here.
Shimanyiro, Kenya – Not planting maize sounded like a crazy idea to Elium Kangayia last year.
Kangayia’s crop had been devastated by a maize disease but growing something else was not something he had considered. As member of the One Acre Fund, he was surprised to see that maize was not offered for the 2013 growing season.
The One Acre Fund is a celebrated initiative in East Africa that seeks to assist smallholder farmers by working with them on all aspects of the supply chain as opposed to focusing on a single intervention such as improving irrigation or planting techniques.
In the same region with Kangayia were some 200 One Acre Fund member farmers. When the program announced it would no longer support maize farming, 127 of the farmers quit their memberships. Kangayia decided to stay on and grow the recommended sorghum and millet.
“I was not initially happy,” he said. “But I was very happy after the harvest.”
Despite the warnings and a poor harvest, he still persisted by growing maize on one of his three acres. The maize yield was terrible. He only filled eight bags, roughly as well as he did before joining the One Acre Fund in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, before the disease (known as maize lethal necrosis, or MLN) appeared, he was able to harvest 44 bags of maize on two acres and 63 bags on one and a half acres.
The disease MLN is a convergence of two crop diseases that leads to crop rotting. It is spread by maize thrips, rootworms and leaf beetles from plant to plant decimating entire crops. While the long rains are able to keep it from spreading as easily, the shorter rainy season (this year) creates conditions ripe for spreading the disease.
The Kenyan government is encouraging people to rotate crops and not grow maize each year in order to keep the disease at bay. Breeding a disease-tolerant seed is also important to, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. First detected in Kenya in 2011, there were cases of MLN detected in Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania this year.
The transition to sorghum and millet worked out well for Kangayia. He managed to harvest 100 kg of millet from a quarter-acre plot. The money made from the sales paid school fees for his six children. The money left over was used to buy a goat.
One Acre Fund is reintroducing maize to farmers in Western Kenya this year. Sorghum, millet and collard greens are also a part of the package for members. Two additional options exist, called top ups, that will help improve raising better cows and a solar powered light and cell phone charger.
Beatrice Khasyila, 42, says she is going to buy the Sun King. One Acre Fund offered her a similar product before and she bought it. In addition to charging her own cell phone, Khasyila made ten shillings from neighbors for each phone charge they needed.
The Sun King comes equipped with two USB ports allowing for two phones to be charged at once and a total of four per day. By making forty shillings a day, Khasyila can pay off the device in less than 100 days and start earning a profit.
She too was initially concerned about the changes made by the program to their offering last year, but says it could not have worked better. Now, she feeds her children the millet and sorghum. She cooks for them the millet in the same way that she used to prepare the maize. It is more filling and lasts longer because of that, she explained.
“The children love it,” she said. “They prefer the millet ugali to the maize ugali now.”
Unlike maize, the price for millet is relatively consistent throughout the year said the farmers. To optimize profit, maize has to be stored for months until peak prices are reached. When a financial emergency emerges, farmers lose out when the have to sell too early. With millet the problem is erased.
Sales are good for Khasyila and Kangayia. People from the region travel to their farms to purchase the crops that they grow. Neither has a need to go and sell in the local markets. Khaysila also managed to buy two goats with the money from this year’s harvest.
Both also agree on the importance of One Acre Fund in their lives. They stuck with the program through the changes because of the improvements they saw on their farms and the knowledge they learned from the program.
“One Acre Fund is more expensive and harder work, but it is worth it for the better yields,” said Kangayia.
He used fertilizer and improved seeds before joining the program, but was not successful because he misused the fertilizer. Farming used to be much easier, he explained, but the changes that make it harder are for the better. The knowledge gained from the program is why he believes in the program.
Rather than planting maize on his own this year, Kangayia is making the switch to sugar cane. The success of his plot and the reintroduction of maize have him satisfied with what will come next year. Sorghum is growing again on his farm where he hopes one day to try out rice.
“I will be happy if we all get twenty bags of maize this year,” he said. “Then we will all be out of poverty.”