For big harvest, we must fund agro-research well

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Is the country’s agricultural research on track? Anita Chepkoech spoke to Dr Eliud Kireger, Karlo’s director-general, on this and many other contentious issues

What would you say ails Kenya’s agriculture sector?

In each and every government document, we state that agriculture is the mainstay of our economy, but this is not reflected in the amount of resources we commit to the sector, especially research.

In every sector, research precedes development. We pay a lot of lip-service to agriculture, yet commit very little resources to it, which is why the sector is characterised by use of obsolete technologies, overreliance on rain-fed systems, low levels of mechanisation, disorganised markets and poor supporting policies.

In 2017, you raised concern that half of the researchers at Kalro were to retire by this year. What is the situation right now?

Kalro is a merger of four research institutes namely Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Tea Research Foundation of Kenya, Coffee Research Foundation, and Kenya Sugar Research Foundation.

It has close to 3,000 members of staff, 950 of whom are research scientists and technologists. True, approximately 60 per cent of the research scientists and technologists are above 55 years old.

But we have a succession plan in place to replace exiting researchers, where the old mentor the young for smooth transition.

Most research findings do not reach farmers. Why is this the case?

Our mandate is not extension, but we do catalyse adoption by disseminating our technologies, innovations and good agricultural management practices through farmer trainings at our centres but all these are not enough since we do not have a presence in every county or sub-county.

Kalro’s Kienyeji chicken has been a hit among poultry farmers. Should farmers expect another ground-breaking product?

Research is a continuous process and because of the changing climate, food preferences and habits, Kalro continues to develop new products and services that include orange-fleshed sweet potato which are high in vitamin A, purple tea which is rich in antioxidants, iron and zinc rich beans (bio-fortified), a bio-product for control of aflatoxin in maize and groundnuts (AflasafeKe01) and nutri-cakes for livestock, among others.

About 20 per cent of the agriculture budget goes to research and knowledge, where Kalro falls. But most of this money is used to pay salaries. How can this be corrected?

Kalro is responsible for developing technologies for over 400 crops, several livestock value chains, natural resource management like soil fertility and managements, genetic resources, biotechnology and more.

This requires an array of disciplines in every field to be able to address critical priority constraints. Due to inadequate funds, we have had to write proposals to various donors, leading to over 90 per cent of research being donor supported, hence-donor driven.

It may appear that most of the money provided is for salaries but it is important to note Kalro is a merger of four institutions and a large staff compliment.

Kalro is doing several biotechnology researches, including on Bt cotton, but opposition and fears of genetically modified produce still persist in Kenya. What could be done to correct the situation?

We need to educate policymakers and general public on what Kalro is doing on biotechnology, which is not only about the development of GMOs.

What is your advice to farmers on climate change?

For a long time, we have been debating on whether the climate is changing or not. The climate has changed and will continue to change affecting rainfall patterns and temperatures.

Climate change is characterised by erratic rainfall patterns including flooding, severe drought, frost, hailstones, and emergence of new pests and diseases.

For farmers to overcome these challenges, they must embrace climate-smart agricultural technologies that include planting drought-tolerant crops and conservation agriculture.

Kalro has developed several drought-tolerant crop varieties and an agricultural observatory platform, which assists farmers to forecast weather in all the 47 counties for the past 30 days and next seven days and provide agronomic advisories.

Farmers should keenly consider these advisories to be able to determine what to grow in the various seasons to avoid crop failure.

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