Agra-alliance reported a 3.5 per cent increase in food production for Africa in 2008. This was attributed to high-yield crops. In Kenya, high-yield crops and investments in pest control and new technology are showing rapid signs of increased productivity; in some cases yields have increased by eight times the amount based on the same acreage.
As is often the case with African agriculture, water is an important consideration. In Eastern Kenya, farmers have traditionally farmed with seasonal rains but a big step forward for many in the last five years has been the introduction of supplemental watering, with one study by Improved Management of Agricultural Water in Eastern & Southern Africa (IMAWESA) showing that basic technologies such as drip irrigation were improving yields by between 20 and 500 per cent.
Yet water has been only one of a raft of parallel elements increasing yields. Cumulative sample data collected by the Ministry of Agriculture in Thika West District from 2005 to 2008 shows consistent patterns of increases.
Kale production rose 55 per cent in 2006, another 20 per cent in 2007 and a further 30 per cent in 2008. Tomato production in the district likewise rose 20 per cent in 2006, 2007 and 2008 before dipping due to drought in 2009.
These are not isolated examples of small investment reaping impressive dividends. Local companies supplying seeds and technologies report an overall rise in demand for yield-raising inputs of between 30 and 40 per cent in the last three years.
High yield seeds need to be coupled with farm management practices – next generation farmers are looking towards technology to increase their profit margins. Greenhouse technology, a standard in the multinational flower industry has now been miniaturised to accommodate smallholders, even in urban settings.
For around Sh45,000, a smallholder can get a Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) greenhouse measuring six by 15 metres and built of wood, net and polythene materials. Sh140,000 gets the smallholder a metallic version measuring eight by 15 metres that holds around 600 tomato plants.
To farmers embracing greenhouses, as opposed to outdoor farming, crops are guaranteed uniform maturity and over 90 per cent of yield all year. The greenhouses also offer protection from pests and weather fluctuations. A tomato plant grown outdoors in cold climates is vulnerable to pests and destruction; it can result in seasonal yields of less than 10kgs. A farmers initial tomato harvest in a greenhouse can be 15 to 20kgs and by the time the plant completes its full year cycle, yields can top 60kgs.
Pest control is also being modernised – creative solutions are increasing yields substantially for mango growers, for example, where wasps have been introduced to mango orchards, protecting them from the fruit flies.
Farmers are also intercropping with crops that provide a hostile environment to pests that often attack a main crop. One such technique is the push-pull method where maize is intercropped with silver leaf desmodium, a fodder legume, Napier grass and Sudan grass. This technique stops the stem borer, with farmers reporting a six-fold increase in maize fields. Napier grass can also be sold as animal feed.
Livestock farmers are also turning to higher yield breeds. Fleckvieh, the European cow which is both a prolific milk producer and builds a body mass quicker that the Fresian equivalent show simple changes at the early stages of agricultural planning can return dividends of greater output and reduced costs. Initial investments are also low, adding to the growing notion that there is a future in Africa for high yield crops.