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Sorghum farming ignites lamp of wealth in destitute region

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

Deep inside the semi-arid Tharaka Nithi county, the afternoon sun glints off golden stalks of sorghum, ripe with crop.

At a three-acre farm, young men sweat under the heat of the day, loading freshly cut stalks, heavy with large white grains into a thresher. Its work is to dislodge the cereals from the stalks.

Engines roar and the machine drags the brown stems into its hungry bowel. Straw and dust fly into the dry air as the noisy apparatus spits sorghum grains from the other end and into waiting sacks.

It is harvest time for farmers in Mukothima ward and similar scenes are replicated in the nearby farms. As this happens, Beatrice Nkatha looks at the growing stack of sacks with pride. Soon, they will  be loaded into a pick-up truck and delivered to an aggregation point in Mukothima town, two kilometres away.

Once the sorghum is bulked from small-scale farmers around the area, the grain will be collected and delivered to East African Breweries Limited (EABL), a large-scale buyer of the cereal. 

Nkatha is the force behind aggregation of grains; a move that has provided ready markets for sorghum and changed fortunes for farmers in the dry area.

Working with Africa Harvest, a non-governmental organisation that introduced commercial sorghum farming in the county in 2009, she has been mobilising farmers to embrace the crop that is bolstering food security and improving livelihoods in the area.

Today, Nkatha manages one of the largest grain aggregation points in the county, owns two tractors, two threshers, runs the largest agrovet in Mukothima town and works with 15,000 sorghum farmers.

It is hard, looking at her, to imagine that nine years ago, she was a struggling tailor at the dusty town nearby. She worked as a tailor for two years before quitting in 2007 to venture into grain bulking as a broker.

“The tailoring job was not profitable. So I started sourcing grains from farmers and selling them to large-scale buyers,” she says.

Before 2009, food insecurity dominated Mukothima owing to frequent droughts in the semi-arid area. Farmers who grew maize, sorghum and other legumes were constantly frustrated by low yields and lack of ready markets.

Then entered Africa Harvest. The NGO, which was well-versed with the community’s vulnerability to food insecurity, having worked in other arid and semi-arid areas, moved in to help farmers improve productivity and break the cycle of hunger by introducing quality seeds. They also trained farmers on good agronomic practices and linked them to markets.

“Our goal was to disseminate improved research to the farmer to boost their yields. We wanted to help them make money through the entire sorghum value chain,” says Africa Harvest chief executive Florence Wambugu.

Sorghum, which is drought-resistant and fast-growing, was the crop of choice. The crop takes three months to mature. Besides, the NGO had partnered with EABL for a ready market.

Within few seasons of using better seed varieties, pesticides and fertiliser, yields of farmers improved from 400kg of sorghum per hectare to 1.5 tonnes.

Based on her experiences in bulking grains as a broker, Nkatha came on board to help farmers aggregate their produce. The network started with 40 farmers in 2009 and has now grown to 15,000. Collectively, the farmers now produce between 8,000 and 10,000 metric tonnes of grain compared to 800 tonnes when they started out.

The profitability of the crop has also significantly improved.

“Prior to the introduction of commercial sorghum farming programme in 2009, a kilogramme of sorghum retailed at Sh3. The same year EABL started purchasing the crop at Sh17. Over time, prices have risen to Sh37 per kilo,” Nkatha says.

Modern concrete houses in most homesteads and large fields of ripe sorghum crop are testament of how the right intervention can transform the fortunes of even the most hopeless of situations.

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