Seed-saving culture keeps Kenyan farmers away from grain-drying technologies


As the rains pounded Kakamega County in western Kenya on Wednesday afternoon, Freda Gimode struggled to harvest her bean crop.

She did it as a matter of urgency to save the crop, which is traditionally planted alongside maize, from rotting on the farm due to heavy rains.

Over the years, she has been harvesting the crop by August when it is still dry and maize by September, but this season erratic rains disrupted the pattern.

“I planted the crops in May because that is when the rains intensity was higher. The first crop that I planted as usual in March failed,” she said.

However, even as she rushed to harvest the crop and amid the heavy rain, Gemode would still dry the grains under the little sun despite having access to quicker machine drying technologies.

And she has a reason for it – she would replant some of the seeds and if she machine dries them, they would not germinate.

“A season ago, I planted bean seeds that had been dried by machine and they did not germinate. I cannot risk again,” she said.

Most Kenyan farmers save seeds from previous harvests, especially those of legumes, to plant the following season.

This is because hybrid bean, pigeon peas and Dolichos lablab seeds, are costlier as compared to those of maize.

A kilo of commercial bean seeds cost up to 1,000 shillings (9.8 U.S. dollars) while maize goes for 4 dollars.

The common practice of recycling seeds, therefore, helps farmers to cut costs, but it’s keeping many away from quicker grain drying technologies.

Available grain drying machines in Kenya include those running on solar, diesel or petrol and electricity.

The national government has invested in the technologies to help farmers dry their produce faster and curb aflatoxin.

However, the age-old culture of saving seeds for planting has made hundreds of farmers rely on the sun to dry produce amid the erratic weather occasioned by climate change.

“Drying of seeds using machines ‘burns’ them. It kills the growing part unlike when using the sun,” said George Ambuche, a farmer in Kitale.

Ambuche sells his produce to the government-run National Cereals and Produce Board, which also machine dries the harvest for farmers at a small fee.

The farmer, like many others, does not take the produce he will use as seeds for machine drying. “I dry them at home especially beans because I don’t farm the hybrid ones,” he said.

Traditionally, drying of grains in Kenya starts on the farm, where the crop is left standing for weeks in the field to dry before its harvested and dried again.

But this was only possible when the weather was predictable, with the drying coinciding with the dry season.

This, however, is not the case currently as most farmers still have their unharvested maize crop on the farm as it rains heavily, thanks to climate change.

The unharvested crop is now exposed to insect, bird and rodent attack and some decay due to the high moisture.

Beatrice Macharia, an agronomist with Growth Point acknowledged that some machine-dried seeds don’t germinate, especially when they are excessively dried using hot air or heat.

“The part that germinates in grain seeds is the radicle which can be destroyed by over-drying as it sometimes happens but this should not discourage farmers from using new technologies since the produce risks aflatoxin attack,” she said.

According to her, well-dried seeds are usually “half-dead” before they are put in the soil where they must get right conditions to germinate.

Macharia noted that seed-saving is an age-old practice that is hard to stop and it is currently being encouraged by the high cost of commercial seeds amid the erratic weather.

“Most farmers are seed-saving to cut costs because of climate variability, which has heaped losses to produce since some end up with failed crop,” she said. Enditem

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