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Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Kenyan farmers tackle crop failure by swapping seeds for seedlings

By Caroline Wambui
RUMURUTI, Kenya – Dressed in a navy blue sweater and a grey pair of trousers, David Mwangi bends to examine a bunch of ripe tomatoes.
In this central region of Kenya, farmers’ crops struggle to germinate because of irregular and unpredictable rainfall and temperatures, leading to high crop failure. But some farmers are now turning to seed propagation, whereby their seeds are grown in a “nursery” in a greenhouse before the farmers transplant the seedlings at home.
Unlike planting seeds manually in the ground, growing them in plastic trays in greenhouses enables a better control of conditions like temperatures and shading.

Farmer examining seedlings on his farm in Rumuruti, Kenya. TRF/Caroline Wambui
Justus Murage, a farmer who buys vegetable seedlings himself, explained that “the seeding process at the greenhouse is automated: machines fill the trays with soil, make holes in the soil, plant the seeds and waters them before releasing them to await germination at the greenhouses.”
The trays are filled with peat moss, a highly compact and absorbent matter that makes it easier for seeds to grow.
Mwangi and Murage are among thousands of farmers across the country who get their seeds “propagated” in the greenhouse before transplanting them, paying about 1 Kenyan shilling per seedling depending on the type of crop.
PLANNING IS KEY
The seeds can take as little as less than a month to mature in the greenhouse, instead of at least 5-7 weeks when planted manually, according to Okisegere Ojepat, a horticulture expert.
Murage added that the protected environment of the greenhouse produces not only higher quality seedlings, but uniform ones.
“The more uniform seedlings are, the easier it is to plan when to harvest them, as they all mature at the same time.”
“No seedling will grow taller or shorter than the other, as they all grow in optimal conditions.”
Mwangi agrees, saying that “I can now plan my farming strategy as I know for how long the seeds will be at the greenhouse, when I can transplant them on my farm and when I can harvest them – which wasn’t the case when I manually planted seeds myself.”
The seedlings grow faster when transplanted at the farm, meaning Mwangi now has four harvesting seasons in one year – instead of three previously – allowing him to plant and sell more crops.
Ojepat said that propagation ensures a germination rate of up to 97% – compared to 40-50% previously – ensuring stronger seedlings with a big root mass which lowers their chances of withering during transplant.
COST SAVINGS
Propagation is also helping farmers cut on costs. “Since I’ve been using the technology, I’ve saved about 25,000 Kenyan shillings per harvesting season (three months) by using less labour and experiencing less crop failure,” said Mwangi.
He used to employ three people to till the land, form a seedbed, plant the seeds and transplant them – and now only needs to employ one to transplant the seedlings.
Article originally published at Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED).
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