Drought-Resistant Seeds Aid Farmers On Arid Lands

Africa's small farms can also gain from rainfall- conservation techniques and more fertilizer

AMID one of the worst regional droughts on record, Jennifer Kivuti got a better crop than most of her neighbors in this central Kenyan town by using drought-resistant seeds.

Mrs. Kivuti purchased the new seeds as part of a Kenyan and British government-assisted trial program. The program is one of many across Africa aimed at boosting production by small farmers, who make up about 80 percent of the continent's population.

Kivuti and her husband Simon Nyaga have nine children. They live on a 15-acre farm in a tin-roofed, lantern-lit house with a battery-run TV and a pedal sewing machine.

Kivuti, who does most of the farming for the family, planted drought-resistant cow peas and corn seeds, plus a tough, local variety of mung bean that does fairly well in dry years. Her harvest was smaller than usual, however, due to the drought gripping large parts of eastern and southern Africa.

"When we have enough rain, normally we have six bags" of cow peas, Kivuti says, standing in one of her fields. "Now we have two."

But farmers in this area who used only non-drought-resistant seeds got little or no crop this year, says Peter Mutwiri, a field assistant on the trial program for Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture.

African farmers, despite periodic regional droughts and famine, have been steadily increasing food production for years, according to the World Bank. Yet about one-fourth of Africa's population doesn't have enough to eat, the bank points out.

During most of the 1980s, rapid population growth outpaced agricultural production. Farm output nearly caught up in the latter part of the decade, and then dipped again. Africa by mid-1991 had an estimated 677 million people. By the year 2025, it is likely to add almost a billion more, projects the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.

The number of hungry Africans is likely to increase in many nations during the 1990s, adds Joachim Von Braun of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

Experts say that further, though not dramatic, increases in food production in Africa are possible by planting improved seeds, using soil-management techniques to conserve rainfall, and using imported fertilizers or manure. Many of the technologies and practices are cheap enough that small farmers can use them, say African and Western agricultural experts.

The World Bank continues to try to get African governments to cut food subsidies, popular in cities because they keep food prices low. Allowing prices to rise would put more money in farmers' pockets and encourage more production.

Here in central Kenya, the trials of drought-resistant seeds were aimed at "improving food security [having enough to eat] in marginal, low, hot areas of Kenya," says Vernon Gibberd, director of the trials program for Britain's Overseas Development Administration (ODA).

More than 80 percent of Kenya - and much of Africa - is considered too dry for good farming. Africa's rapidly expanding population means most good farmland is already in use. Experts see the unfarmed or poorly farmed dry lands as vital to increasing food production in Africa. And they say the new seeds can help make better use of these areas.

The new-seed trials have shown that modest gains can be made in dry regions, says Mr. Gibberd, an agricultural expert who has worked in Africa for 29 years. This year's drought was an exceptionally harsh test for the seeds, he says.

"In a season when the rain runs out on you, the new varieties are likely to mature, whereas the local varieties are going to get stuck," Gibberd says.

The new varieties, by maturing faster, reduce the risk of them drying out before the harvest, he explains.

The traditional cow pea seeds, however, produce more leaves, which are popular as a spinach-like food. And mung beans from the local seeds are less susceptible to weevils, though a new variety tastes better, Kenyan farmers have told Gibberd.

Among the 2,000 or so farmers using the new varieties, the improved, drought-resistant sorghum, millet, and cow pea seeds out-produced the traditional ones by an average of 15 percent over four years. The local, traditional mung beans did about 15 percent better than the new varieties, for reasons still unclear.

Gibberd advises farmers to plant both traditional and improved seeds because the improved ones do better in dry years, but if the rains are good, the old ones do better.

He cautions, however, that the new varieties must be planted before or within 24 hours of the first rain of the growing season. "Yields drop sharply with just a few days delay."

The ODA helped fund the seed trials. The Kenyan government, with continued ODA assistance, plans to continue the trials with additional farmers and other varieties of seeds. A key challenge will be to get enough farmers using the new seeds so that commercial dealers will stock them.

But improved seeds can only help "to some extent," says Donald Thomas, a professor of soil and water conservation at the University of Nairobi. He says Farmers should also make greater use of mulch on crops to retain rain runoff and reduce evaporation, build tiny dikes around tree trunks to trap rainfall, and construct terraces to reduce erosion.

Farmers can double the amount of rainwater reaching their crops by using a series of dirt dikes, with spillways, to contain runoff from adjacent grazing lands or even sloping roads, Mr. Thomas says. Some sorghum is being grown this way in Kenya, while other farmers are channeling water from roads into ditches where they grow bananas, thus increasing production, he adds.

To further boost production, laws are needed in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa to allow more farmers to hold title to their land, and to prevent people living upstream from diverting too much of the water needed by farmers downstream, says Calestous Juma, director of the African Center for Technology Studies in Nairobi.

Farmers also need political stability, Dr. Juma adds. The politically related tribal clashes in Kenya this year forced many farmers to flee their land, he says.

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