Equally important for the future of the country is this imperative message for the new government: Give Peas a Chance. And Maize. And Beans. And Sweet Potatoes. And Millet. And Sorghum. And Peanuts.
The planting season is at hand in many parts of Kenya, and a good agriculture season should be a top priority for the government. The violence that followed the previous nationwide election in 2007 displaced many smallholder farmers and disrupted the planting season, which would result in significantly reduced harvests. I traveled with Josette Sheeran, who was then the executive director of the World Food Program, as she spoke with the leaders of the quarrelling parties. The visit came in the throes of the 2007-2008 food crisis, when global stockpiles of major crops were shrinking and prices were skyrocketing; Ms. Sheeran was scrambling mightily to procure enough food, on a limited budget, to feed the increasing number of hungry people. The last thing she needed to worry about was feeding displaced farmers in Kenya, a country that ought to be able to feed itself.
After touring camps of displaced farmers, who should have been tending their fields, Ms. Sheeran had a curt message to the political leaders about the violence their disputes had unleashed: Knock it off, and get your agriculture back on track.
Agriculture is key to Kenya’s economic growth and social stability. The majority of the population lives in rural areas, and most of those people are smallholder farmers. These farmers produce the majority of the country’s food.
Thus, the new government’s main concern should be dealing with a maize disease that had been spreading through the western region of Kenya, threatening production in one of the country’s breadbaskets. The virus bears a frightening name: maize lethal necrosis disease. Carried by insects, it dries up leaves and stunts cobs, damaging the country’s staple crop.
The disease was on a rapid advance in the second half of last year, demanding a decisive response by the government and the agriculture industry to work on resistant varieties and get those seeds from the labs into the hands of the farmers. At the same time, the maize disease presented an opportunity to promote crop diversity that would be good for the farmers’ diets, good for their income, good for their soils. Improved resilience would be the silver lining.
When I visited them in January, the smallholder farmers of western Kenya featured in the book The Last Hunger Season were pondering their options. Other grains like millet and sorghum have strong markets and would provide income. Sweet potatoes and cassava would help with food security. Beans, peas and greens would assure varied nutrition.
“We must adjust,” said Rasoa Wasike, one of the farmers. Her husband Cyrus, who had become a field officer for the social enterprise organization One Acre Fund, agreed. “We can’t stick with maize only,” he said. “Our ancestors used to eat these other crops, so we will just go back to those habits. We want our families, our children, to know these different meals rather than always chasing the price of maize.”
It would be good to have choices, he said. “That is what will save us this year.”
As planting time nears, the farmers wait for rain and pray for peace. In Kenya, both are needed to help the seeds take root and the crops to flourish.