High yielding seeds in East Africa

In eastern Uganda, population growth has forced farmers to farm smaller plots of land. Whereas in the past many farmers had access to manure from their animals, increasingly they are having to rely on chemical fertilisers. Moreover, farmers used to keep part of one year’s crop to plants for the following year’s produce. This has become less common and farmers are more likely to buy high yielding varieties (HYVs) of seed to produce their crop. HYVs, along with irrigation water and fertilisers, were part of the so-called green revolution – the use of science and technology to improve agricultural yields. The green revolution began in the 1960s with HYVs of rice and wheat. They prospered in Latin America and Asia where an 10% increase in the area of land covered by HYVs led to an increase of 10-15% in GDP per person.

However, such a success has not been experienced in sub-Saharan Africa. Surveys in Uganda in  2014 showed less than one-quarter of maize farmers and less than one-firth of all crop farmers were using HYVs. In contrast, three-quarters of all farmers in Kenya use HYVs. Nevertheless, even in Kenya crop farmers have had to move onto lands once considered only good for pastoral farming. Since 2014 Kenya has had poor maize crops- thought o to be due to a combination of climate change and pest infestations, such as the fall army worm moth (Spodoptera frugiperda).

Moreover, HYVs do not always work. They may need more moisture or fertiliser than traditional varieties (TVs). There are also fake hybrid seeds on the market. One maize seed developed  for Kenya, named ‘614’ thrives in the wet highlands, but does not grow well in hot, dry areas. The seed is produced by the Kenya Seed Company, a state-controlled organisation, and it dominates the market. It is cheaper than other seeds produced by other companies as it is subsidised by the government. The government also makes it difficult and time-consuming for other competitors to get on the seed market.

There have been some encouraging trials by multinational companies to tolerate local conditions and resist pests, including the fall army worm. However, these genetically modified seeds are banned both by Kenya and Uganda. It is not an easy time for farmers in either Uganda or Kenya.

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