By Samwel Onyango, Cassava Project Assistant and Masters graduate in Food Safety and Quality, University of Nairobi
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted food systems. In the ‘new normal’, Kenyan farmers are struggling to revitalize their farms and are keen to mitigate some of the challenges experienced due to lockdowns, controlled gatherings and movement restrictions within counties and across the country.
As implementers of MasterCard Funded Cassava Project through the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), the University of Nairobi has been able to interact with farmers’ pre and post COVID-19. Interacting with farmers post COVID-19 is a great experience since we have been able to dissect the challenges facing our food production system.
There is an urgent need for a resilient food system post COVID-19 that is capable of minimizing the risk of future widespread disruptions of food supplies by pandemics and climate change by enhancing linkages between small-scale food production and local consumption.
During the same period, Kenyan farmers experienced global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, locust invasion, unsold crops to crop rot and acute hunger due to restricted trade between counties.
Against this background, the University of Nairobi had embarked on a mission to clean farmer-preferred cassava varieties through the newly-established Tissue Culture Laboratory.
This initiative was propelled by farmers’ desire to have healthy planting materials to increase cassava productivity in Kenya. The mission was in line with the Kenyan presidential BIG FOUR Agenda which highlights cassava as a food security crop prioritized for promotion.
While many farmers had lost most of their crops to invasive locusts and the unpredicted delayed rainfall, farmers along Kenya’s coast were sharing amazing feedback through a WhatsApp group describing how cassava – the often ignored crop in backyard gardens – had become a savior.
In this area, farmers had planted a few cassava stems as intercrop to maize, banana, coconut and pigeon peas. The resilience of the crop became evident when the food supply was greatly disrupted, and farmers were forced to utilize locally available crops. Having fed the farmers during the lockdown period, cassava gained much interest from neighboring churches which started making small gardens for cassava production.
At the initial stages of our interaction with the farmers before the pandemic began, inadequate healthy planting materials was a major challenge affecting the production of cassava at the Kenyan coast. Another barrier was the disconnect between the producers and the market. As an institution, we organized both college seminars and open field trainings to educate our farmers on the need to revamp the total cassava value chain.
Now, the Tissue Culture Laboratory at the University of Nairobi is optimized to produce 5,000 plantlets within one week. The aim is to ensure we clean the current diseased germplasms and distribute the plants to the farmers. As the tissue culture plants are quite delicate and cannot be distributed to farmers directly, we have established two greenhouses for hardening the plantlets before either planting them as mother plants or distributing them.
The process has been ongoing since July 2018 and the first crops planted were ready for distribution as early as March 2020. However, this distribution process was hampered due to lockdown. When restrictions eased, we embarked on a rigorous schedule for seed distribution in both Kilifi and Taita-Taveta counties, distributing seeds to over 3000 farmers. The most recent dissemination saw farmers received five stems of cassava cuttings and two potted cassava hardened seedlings.
Based on these interactions with farmers before and during the COVID-19 period, and considering the level of technological adoption by the Kenyan farming systems, it is recommended that farmers be trained in precision agriculture.
The impacts of climate change are equally enormous and thus farmers in the arid and semi-arid areas should be encouraged to plant drought-tolerant crops such as cassava. The government needs to take rigorous steps to facilitate farmers using automated machinery facilities, enhance quality seed production – and in collaboration with other agricultural organizations – create linkages that can enhance direct farmer funding to aid farmers from depending on rain-fed agriculture.
There is a strong linkage between the global pandemic and the disruptions of the farming systems, that would call for revitalizing small-scale farms, creating alternative animal production systems and enhancing urban agriculture.
This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for December is ‘Farming in a post-COVID world’.
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