Pigeon peas, the new maize?

Faced with increasingly unreliable rains, farmers in Kenya's eastern district of Mbeere South have started growing drought-tolerant crops to meet their food and subsistence needs instead of the staple maize.

"The rains have become [scarce]... This is the fourth year we have had insufficient rain," Harrieta Nyaga, a farmer from the Rwika area, told IRIN. "We expected rains in March, but they came in January. People got confused, some planted, some did not... the crop was affected."

Nyaga, a mother of four, said she had planted 0.8ha of maize but was unsure whether she would harvest more than two 90kg bags. "Normally, I get up to 20 bags," she added.

Declining maize yields, due to climate variability and high fertilizer costs, have caused maize prices to soar. The cost of a bag has doubled to about 2,000 shillings (US$25) in the area.

Four new drought-tolerant pigeon pea varieties are being piloted in Mbeere, and specialists say the crop is hardy and can grow in a range of environments and cropping systems.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is providing farmers with free seeds.

"They select the preferred varieties and sizes," said Richard Jones, ICRISAT Eastern and Southern Africa assistant director. The selection is based on maturity times, plant height, stem thickness, amount of leaves, susceptibility to disease, cooking times and soil types.

Representatives from 30 farmers’ groups have been selected to pilot the project. Across Kenya, pigeon peas are being grown on about 196,261 ha of land, according to ICRISAT. Malawi, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania grow considerable quantities too.

"Depending on rainfall availability, one can harvest 750kg per 0.5ha," said Jones. The new varieties mature in about 120 days while the traditional varieties flower at the end of the long rains, growing to maturity from October to August.

"These new varieties are very elastic. Because they mature quicker, one gets a harvest even with just the short rains [October-December]... if there is more rain [the long rains] one gets a second rattoon [crop]," he said.

"Old varieties will not give you a crop until after the long rains [April-June]. If the long rains fail, then there is no harvest."

Nyaga said the uptake of the new varieties would be higher if pesticides were provided during the first planting. "The pesticides are very costly for a first-time farmer," she said.

About 20 percent of the farmers in Eastern Kenya have adopted new pigeon pea varieties

Nutrition value

Pigeon peas are a high protein dietary staple providing 20 to 22 percent of the protein where it is grown extensively (India, Myanmar, Nepal, China, and south-eastern Africa).

Besides its de-hulled split peas, its immature green seeds and pods are also used as a vegetable.

"We have been experiencing a lot of hunger and the first harvest really helped my family. I did not have to look for beans to mix with the maize to make githeri [a maize and bean stew]," John Ngari, a farmer in Mbita area said. "I am now trying to move my wife away from growing maize. We can sell some of the pigeon peas and buy maize instead."

Crushed dry pigeon pea seeds are also fed to animals, while the green leaves are quality fodder. The dry stems are used for fuel.

Bonus crop

According to Jones of ICRISAT, the pigeon pea is a bonus crop, which can be grown alongside early maturing cereals while acting as a nitrogen fixer.

"I have not had to add manure or fertilizer like I would have for maize," said Carol Maringa, a farmer in Gachoka, adding that it was also not labour-intensive. She planned to increase her pigeon pea production.

"Even when I combine the cost of ploughing, seeds, weeding and spraying, I am still able to make a good profit," Samuel Mulinge Kyalo, 45, a farmer from Riakanau said.

According to Fred Njeru, Gachoka Division crops officer, food production in the division has fallen: "Now a big number of people are getting famine relief food and this is not sustainable."

The hardest-hit localities, he said, are selling their livestock and burning charcoal to meet their food requirements.

"We are encouraging farmers to adopt drought-tolerant crops, but this will take time," he said. "In the long term, farmers should plant drought-tolerant crops to not only meet their food requirements but also to get more income."

According to Jones of ICRISAT, there is a need to scale up planting of drought-tolerant crops.

In Eastern Kenya, about 20 percent of the farmers have adopted the new pigeon pea varieties, which have been developed using conventional breeding.

Already, there has been about 80 percent uptake in the eastern Makueni District. "Often, information does not move well," Jones noted. "It is like lighting a fire, it burns, then it goes out; you have to keep lighting many smaller fires."