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Unlocking the potential of Africa's farmland

A FIPS staff member explaining the benefits of fertilizers and improved seeds in Kagiyo market.It's market day. The stalls and shops of Kagiyo town, in the Kenyan central district of Kirinyaga, are busy with trade in fresh produce and other goods. Suddenly, on the main street, a commotion starts up outside one of stores that sells seeds, tools and other farm inputs. From a speaker on top of a pick-up van a voice is calling farmers to come and see for themselves how they can triple yields. "This is a great way to meet farmers," says Johannes Masawu, a member of the promotion team. "In an hour we can talk with two hundred."

Farm Input Promotion Service (FIPS) has been running street-side events like this in western and central Kenya for the last three years. With 700 on-farm demonstration plots - as well as events at schools, shows and churches - the aim is to encourage farmers to take a look at the results of using fertiliser and improved maize varieties. Today, outside an agricultural inputs store, there are five promoters holding up posters with photos of farmers and plots of maize that have yielded double or triple the average harvest. But the farmers can take away more than images. "Having heard what we have to say, anyone can go inside the store to buy a small trial pack of fertiliser," explains FIPS Director, Paul Seward. "With each 1 kilo pack of fertiliser the purchaser gets a free 150 gram pack of Western Seeds hybrid maize."

Starting small
Western Seeds is a relative newcomer to the seed scene in Kenya. Ten years ago Salim Ismael, the company's Chief Executive Officer, began breeding the varieties that he felt would make a difference to small scale farmers. "Ninety per cent of farmers rely on maize for food and as a cash crop but yields are generally very low." Could a small company muster enough resources to develop the maize varieties needed? "With a handful of dedicated technicians and some good land we developed maize plants tolerant to stresses such as low nitrogen, drought, diseases - especially maize streak virus - and competition from the pernicious striga weed." It was only two years ago, once the monopoly of the Kenyan seed market finally ended, that Western Seed company could start selling. Today Western Seeds have four maize hybrids on sale that are each tolerant to the identified production constraints.

Back at the promotion in Kagiyo town Paul Seward has moved inside the store and is encouraged to watch which seeds are shifting off the shelves. "I've just seen a lady buy six 2-kilo bags of the improved varieties we've been promoting. She's making an informed investment and she will get the reward in the season ahead."

Farmers buying fertilizer in KagiyoSeeds were not the start. First came fertiliser. Normally fertiliser is only available in 50 kilo sacks which, at a cost of about US$180, is too costly for most of Kenya's five million small scale farmers. So FIPS decided that tiny packets - just one to two hundred grams - would give farmers the chance to invest, experiment and see for themselves the difference this input can make. Getting the right size packaging was one challenge. Just as important was getting a fertiliser that would suit Africa's soils.

For 25 years fertiliser formulations in Kenya had generally provided the same balance of nutrients and have not always best suited the soil and crops farmer want to grow. Athi River Mining, a large Kenyan company involved in manufacture of cement, industrial minerals and chemicals was ready to research and develop a new fertiliser. "What we discovered, in collaboration with a Kenyan University and the Kenya Agricultural Research Insititute," says Company Director, Pradeep Paunrana, "is that the majority of farmland in the country is quite acidic and lacks a range of important nutrients." The new fertiliser formulation contains a careful balance of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, as well as sulphur, calcium, magnesium and seven other micro-nutrients, including boron, copper, iron and zinc. Sales of the fertiliser - called 'Mavuno', which means 'good harvest' - have exceeded expectations; Athi River Mining is currently investing US$ 10 million to increase production capacity to 30,000 tonnes of Mavuno a year.

Something to shout about
In Kagiyo, the promotion commotion has lasted over an hour. Sales of fertilizer and new hybrids have been so brisk the shopkeeper sends an assistant off by bicycle to fetch more from the store. Paul Seward has seen it before. "There's been a major breakthrough this season. At the start of the rainy season we've stimulated sales of 16 tonnes of these improved varieties. Eighteen months ago there was just no demand."

Outside, FIPS promotion team member Mercy Wangechi is packing away the public address system on the team van. "I love my job," she says hoarsely. "I'm proud to be helping farmers like these to produce more on their land." She spots a face in the crowd. It is a face that features on several of the posters smiling out from a spectacularly good crop of maize. It is local farmer Jofri Kamisha, who has been happy to go public about the difference fertilizer and a switch to a different maize variety has made in unlocking the potential of his tiny part of Africa's farmland. "This is where I first bought Mavuno - just a little - to try," he explains to passers-by. "I have never harvested such high production after I planted a new maize with Mavuno. And I am happy to tell all other farmers how it happened!"

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1st November 2004