Breweries persuade drought-hit farmers to switch crops

Demand for beer has driven demand for sorghum Copyright: Flickr/HeadCRasher

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[NAIROBI] A partnership between academics and a beer company, which sent sorghum prices soaring in East Africa, has been highlighted as a way of harnessing agricultural research to fight the effects of drought such as the one in the Horn of Africa.

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) linked up with Kenya-based East African Breweries Limited (EABL) in 2009 to address a missing link between research results and farmers’ incomes.

Farmers had been planting maize, which is susceptible to drought, while local breweries lacked the sorghum needed for beer production. KARI started producing drought-resistant sorghum seeds for distribution to farmers and the price of sorghum shot up threefold, owing to increased demand from EABL and other breweries.

The example was highlighted at a press briefing in Nairobi last week (1 September), which called for research into more permanent solutions to food crises caused by droughts. The Horn of Africa is going through the worst drought in 60 years, which has already pushed nearly 13 million people to the brink of starvation.

"We can prevent [this situation] from happening again if we are willing to embrace the research and policies that give the farmers in the region the tools they need to be resilient in the face of increasing uncertainty," Lloyd Le Page, chief executive officer of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) consortium said.

The experts have called for the development and uptake of drought resistant crops, such as cowpea, millet and sorghum, which are more likely than the currently preferred crop — maize — to guarantee a harvest when the rainfall underperforms.

"We need to encourage farmers to shift to crops that can withstand drought, besides having a short maturity period. Cowpea, for instance, can be harvested within 50 to 60 days of planting and has proved successful in West Africa," said Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in Kenya.

There are already some success stories. Farmers who are planting CGIAR’s drought-tolerant maize varieties have increased their yields despite the drought, said Le Page.

"We are partnering with organisations like AGRA to support small seed enterprises that improve farmers’ access to these drought-tolerant crops by selling them in inexpensive, small packets," he added.

And David Miano Mwangi, assistant director for animal production at KARI, told SciDev.Net that dietary habits are changing in the eastern Ukambani region, where farmers are now planting sorghum and millet.

Ngongi said that, to market these crops successfully as alternatives to maize there is also a need for crop and livestock insurance to guard farmers against losses caused by drought and for more agricultural investments from the private sector as is already the case in West Africa.