Finger millet and sorghum large-scale farming on the rise in Kenya – story of one farmer going big

Mr C Neylan explaining about the state-of-the art planter he uses for finger millet and sorghum to Drs H Ojulong and E Manyasa.

Finger millet and sorghum large-scale farming on the rise in Kenya – story of one farmer going big

Mr C Neylan explaining about the state-of-the art planter he uses for finger millet and sorghum to Drs H Ojulong and E Manyasa.

Mr C Neylan explaining about the state-of-the art planter he uses for finger millet and sorghum to Drs H Ojulong and E Manyasa.

Finger millet is on the rebound in Kenya, thanks to the ICRISAT-HOPE project. One recent success can be attributed to the entrepreneurial spirit of Mr Cliff Neylan, a farmer in Kenya who has taken up improved varieties to plant the largest acreage in the country outside of maize or wheat.

Mr Cliff Neylan of Lalela Enterprises Ltd, Narok, saw a demand for brown-seeded finger millet variety and sought advice from ICRISAT on improved varieties. ICRISAT recommended the U-15 variety, released in Kenya and Tanzania under the HOPE project.

Through the HOPE Project, farmer groups in western Kenya have been trained in finger millet seed production. ICRISAT organized sourcing seeds of U-15 variety from seed farmers in western Kenya. Farmers from five farmer groups collectively sold 3.16 tons of U-15 finger millet seed valued at US$ 3,628, 150% more than the grain value.

Mr Neylan had been producing finger millet on contract for Unga Ltd (a multi-national food flour processor based in Nairobi) which uses finger millet to produce breakfast and baby porridges. However, the finger millet variety P224 which he has grown for the last five years is a light-colored grain which gives light-colored flour as opposed to the brown color preferred by consumers.

During the first week of May 2014, ICRISAT’s Henry Ojulong, Eric Manyasa and Daniel Otwani, visited Mr Neylan’s farm and were impressed to see 1,200 acres of finger millet crop as well as 1,100 acres of sorghum crop extending to the horizon. Mr Neylan is also growing sorghum (white grain variety – Sila) on contract with Unga Ltd, to be used for the manufacture of poultry feed. Before taking up Sila, he had grown Gadam el Hamam for the past five years on contract with the East African Malting Ltd (a subsidiary of East African Breweries) for brewing.

Although the location is predominantly under maize and wheat production, farmers are diversifying into finger millet and sorghum due to climate change (consistent low rainfall for the past few years) and other challenges in crop production like the devastating Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) that almost wiped out the entire maize crop in the past two seasons. This disease does not infect sorghum and finger millet.

Mr Neylan shared his experiences with finger millet production in the dry high elevation agro-ecologies of Kenya. Five years ago he abandoned wheat farming due to escalating production costs. He practices minimum tillage and incorporates the massive finger millet biomass into the soil to improve soil structure and fertility. This was evident owing to the fact that although the season had received the last rains a month ago, the finger millet and sorghum crops had survived on residual moisture.

In the farm of Mr C Neylan.

In the farm of Mr C Neylan.

ICRISAT will collaborate with Mr Neylan in variety testing to identify better varieties to suit market preferences for both sorghum and finger millet and also for chickpea to fit in the rotation program. There is potential for sorghum hybrid commercialization as most of the sorghum varieties seem to have reached a yield plateau. A number of sorghum hybrids have been recommended for release in Kenya and these will be evaluated on the farm next season.

Mr Neylan is proud to produce finger millet because it is highly nutritious, thus contributing a lot to the health and well-being of the community and the country at large. ICRISAT will work closely with Mr Neylan to realize the profitable commercialization of the two crops through provision of appropriate cultivars and crop management options.

The Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement (HOPE) of Sorghum and Millets in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is implemented in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); the Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), France; NARS institutes and universities in 11 countries; and private sector and research for development organizations, and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is being undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals.