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East Africa small-scale cereal farmers receive major boost

The Swiss-based BioVision, Kilimo Trust Uganda and the Nairobi-headquartered icipe – African Insect Science for Food and Health, have recently achieved a major milestone towards maximising maize and sorghum production, while improving the health and income of small-scale farmers in East Africa.

This follows the collaboration of these organisations towards the development of a curriculum for Farmers Field Schools (FFS) on the icipe’s ‘push-pull’ technology, an innovative strategy, which simultaneously combats stemborer moths, striga weeds, and poor soil fertility. Stemborers and striga together can, if not controlled, lead to as much as 100% yield losses of maize. As a result, although maize is the most important staple food in sub Saharan Africa (SSA), the region’s average per hectare yield of this cereal is the lowest in the world, and far below the population’s needs. Maize harvests that would be saved by controlling these two pests could feed an additional 27 million people in SSA.

Unfortunately, small-scale farmers who contribute more than 80% of the continent’s maize production often lack the money to buy synthetic pesticides, which are in any case not only harmful to the environment, but usually ineffective as well.

‘Push-pull’ is the result of a 10-year quest by Rothamsted Research, United Kingdom in collaboration with the Nairobi-headquartered icipe – African Insect Science for Food, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, livestock and fisheries to provide such farmers with environmentally-friendly and sustainable methods to control these two pests.

The strategy uses a novel combination of forage plants which, when intercropped with cereals, act as both a trap and a repellent for stemborers and striga. The two plants so far employed by icipe are Napier grass, which attracts the moths, and desmodium, which produces semiochemicals that repel stemborers. Napier, planted as a border around the main crop, ‘pulls’ them away from the cereal and leaving it protected Desmodium is planted intimately within the rows of maize or sorghum to ‘push’ the pests. In addition, the roots of desmodium generate several isoflavones, some of which inhibit the germination, while others prevent the attachment of striga seeds to the root of the cereal.

Currently, more than 7000 farmers in 19 districts in Kenya and in five districts in Uganda are practising push-pull, while training demonstrations have started in Tanzania. In these sites, ‘push-pull’ has increased maize yields by an average of 25% in areas where only stemborers are present, and by more than 80% where both stemborers and striga are a problem. In addition, ‘push-pull’ has contributed to the augmentation of livestock production, especially on small farms where pressure on land is high, since both napier grass and desmodium provide quality fodder for livestock. Importantly too, the technology increases soil fertility as desmodium has nitrogen-fixing and moisture retention qualities.

The recently launched ‘push-pull’ curriculum is based on the realisation that poor dissemination of research technologies is partly to blame for continuing decline in agricultural productivity, and the increasing poverty among small-holder farmers in SSA. The aim of the collaborating institutions, therefore, is to expand the ‘push-pull’ technology to as many farmers as possible, taking into account its knowledge intensive nature and the need to guide end-users in learning its principles and practices. The curriculum will also be an important resource for the national extension system, the NGOs and the Community Based Organisations (CBOs).

The curriculum is a product of input from several individuals and organisations in the region, including farmers, research scientists, agricultural extension officers, practitioners from Non Governmental Organisations and donors.

Liz Nganga | alfa
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