The “high number” of farmers without seeds is due to drought in the region and Kenya last year. “Many farmers either sold the seeds they had kept or used them as food,” Wilson Songa, secretary of agriculture at the ministry, told IRIN.
The problem has been getting worse over the past few years. “The country has witnessed an increasing number of farmers totally lacking seeds to plant over the past five years. Remember, the last time this country experienced a bumper harvest was in 2006,” Songa said.
Mary Chemutai, a widowed mother of six, is one such farmer. Her overgrown 0.4 hectare farm in the Mt Elgon region of western Kenya lies fallow, despite the good growing weather. “I didn’t have any food to feed my family because what I got last season ran out, and I couldn’t watch my children die of hunger. So we ate all the seeds I was supposed to plant this season. Now I have nothing to plant.”
She said she could set aside some of the 80 shillings ($US1) she earns daily as a farm labourer to buy seeds, but money was tight. “Some people think I don’t want to plant, but I can’t plant stones.”
Maize meal is a staple in Kenya, which produces 25,000 tons of maize seed annually against a demand of 35,000 tons. Almost 80 percent of Kenyan maize farmers plant with seed saved from the previous harvest or obtained from community seed banks, says the ministry.
“Over a million people not planting maize… means even many more people who rely on it for food will not get it… It is even worse because those farmers with seeds to plant do not have fertilizers, resulting in poor harvests,” Enoch Mwani, who teaches agriculture at the University of Nairobi, told IRIN.
The current seed shortage is compounded by an erratic supply of fertilizer, experts say. At present, some 3.7 million people are food insecure in Kenya, according to the UN.
Certified seeds, approved by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, are available at the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) and Kenya Seed Company, but high prices mean just 1 percent of farmers can afford them, according to the Tegemeo Institute of Agriculture.
“Certified maize seeds give better yields than ordinary seeds, but many farmers prefer their own seeds because that is what they can afford,” Wesley Koech, a food security analyst at Nairobi University’s department of economics, told IRIN.
NCPB prices have risen 9 percent since 2011; a 10kg bag of maize seed retails at Ksh 1,100 (US$13.25).
Government officials say the situation can be improved with the help of extension officers.
“Famers lack seeds because they don’t produce enough maize and end up consuming everything. When extension officers teach them better agricultural methods like planting in time, they realize good harvest. Seed shortages will not occur because they can keep part of what they produce to plant in the coming season,” James Samo, an agricultural production specialist at the Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN.
Samo said part of the extension officers’ mandate is to encourage crop diversification, since maize does not grow well in dry conditions.
“Drought-resilient crops like cassava can cushion farmers from hunger and provide sources of income as well, because it is very difficult to experience total crop failure with them.”
Farmers’ representatives, however, say the 1,600 extension officers are too few to adequately meet farmers’ needs.
“Just a single extension officer covering a whole district and on a motor cycle… There is a need to employ more of them,” Erick Nying’iro, a member of the Cereal Growers’ Association, told IRIN.
“The government should either heavily subsidize certified seeds to bring their prices down considerably to improve access by farmers, or put greater efforts in rolling out extension services to improve what is produced through traditional initiatives such as community seed banks and farm-owned seeds,” said Koech.