Kenya enjoys favorable climatic conditions for maize production and it is a number one staple crop for the population. It accounts to over 60% of food consumed by many households. There exist various varieties which are either open pollinated which comprises of local maize or hybrids which are provided by the commercial seed sector.
Open pollinated which are stable and can be replanted. However, due to high marketing of seed companies on the hybrid seeds, there has been massive genetic erosion of local maize. Small scale farmers have been made to believe that their seeds are inferior and low yielding despite having unique traits vital for climate change resilience, food and nutritional security.
Seed Savers Network has been spearheading seed saving and conservation of the local varieties with local farming communities in Kenya through community seed banks. The revival efforts has recognized custodian farmers who preserve them and provide its associated traditional knowledge.8 local varieties with red, yellow, purple and pigmentation has been saved in the seed banks. Their local names Mukuyu, Makueni, kingi, Githigu, Gathirikari, Micora,Gikuyu and Nylon.
These has been identified through Seed Savers documentation work using a five cell analysis tool which assess plant genetic diversity at household level and its associated traditional knowledge through focused group discussions. From the findings, local maize varieties are underutilized and at highest risk of getting extinct. This is a result of their production by few households in small areas due to dominance by hybrid maize.
Notably the Nylon white maize variety has been lost in the farming communities and is no longer traceable. Efforts to request seeds from the National Gene Bank are ongoing for their reintroduction and revival using participatory methods. This is important as traditional knowledge and scientific findings have shown superior traits in the local maize varieties.
In 2019, Seed Savers Network engaged a reputable and licensed laboratory to test nutritional components of yellow maize and developed a booklet. From the findings, yellow maize has high level of iron, zinc and Vitamin A.These Minerals are vital in the health of the population in insulin release, haemoglobin development among other functions.
Ironically based on The Kenya Micronutrient deficiency report (2011), Iron, zinc and Vitamin are deficient yet they are readily available in yellow maize. https://www.gainhealth.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/kenya-national-micronutrient-survey-report-2011.pdf. This raises concern on whether the white maize which is predominantly consumed by Kenyan population is inferior and has less nutritional value compared to the local colored maize. The Kenyan government passed a policy for fortification of white flour for all the millers. Could this be an indicator to affirm that the Kenyan population should be advised to produce and consume yellow maize?
Another area raising eye blows is on the impact of fall army worm and weevils which are invasive species in Kenya. Experience from farmers’ fields have shown the pests attack highly the hybrid maize with incidences of weevils being reported even before the maize is harvested from the fields. Seed Savers Network examined most of the hybrid seeds and realized over 80% are dented while local maize varieties are flint. The attack by weevils are severe in dented varieties.
COVID 19 pandemic disrupted seed trade. Distribution channels of the seed companies were challenged and purchasing power of farmers was reduced. Trade also between countries and regions was also affect as mobility of goods was hindered due to lockdowns to contain the disease. Kenya rely highly on imported maize seeds which has proved to be a weak strategy in midst of a Pandemic. Local seed system have proven to be sustainable and security to the population in supply of food. Farmers in Seed Savers Network were able to meet their seed requirement and serve their neighbors in the villages.
It is there necessary for all actors to analyze Kenyan seed and food system whether it is working and meeting the nutritional and food requirement of the population. Local maize varieties based on the findings should be promoted more and farmers empowered to produce and save their seeds to safeguard them from getting lost. The solution to ailing seed and food system is squarely in the farmers managed seed system. Therefore, the government should develop interventions and policies to support the both seed system.