NAKURU, 7 September 2009 (IRIN) - The El Niño-related short rains that are expected from mid-September to December could help a significant recovery of drought-affected crops in parts of Kenya's Rift Valley Province, says an official.
"We had planned to hit 30 million, 90kg bags this year; we put in a lot of effort to ensure this target was met but we were relying on rainfall which did not come on time and was unevenly distributed; now we are hoping rains will help us recover part of the crop," Leonard Ochieng, provincial director of agriculture in the Rift Valley, said.
He said the province had the potential to feed Kenya, but its cereal yield this year had been affected by low, erratic and poorly distributed rainfall in some areas.
Up to 40 percent recovery of the maize crop is possible in the North Rift, which was adversely affected by the poor rainfall, Ochieng said, while the South Rift could recover up to 60 percent of the crop.
Michael Makokha, the food security and early warning systems specialist for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), urged farmers in Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western Provinces to take advantage of the anticipated rains to plant off-season crops and bridge their food gaps.
"It is high time communities... re-oriented their tastes and preferences towards agro-ecologically adaptable crops such as cassava, sorghum, sweet potatoes, green grams and cow peas to avoid recurrent household food insecurity," he told a multi-agency food security assessment team on 5 September.
Agriculture officials in the region called for seeds and fertilizers to be given to farmers by mid-September to take advantage of the rains.
A combination of poor rainfall, declining soil fertility from over-cropping, deforestation and high food prices has led to significant maize crop failure in parts of the three provinces.
Traditionally, these were considered Kenya's grain basket, but agriculturalists predict a maize deficit this year of at least 12 million 90kg bags.
Ochieng urged farmers to harvest water during the El Niño rains by investing in roof-catchment structures and water storage tanks.
"We need to look at all aspects of food security and water is an important component; we need to ensure that roof catchments are tapped at household level and each family should at least have a water storage tank," he said.
Rain damage fears
Some farmers, however, expressed fear of damage to the maize and bean crops that are nearing maturity stage.
Zablon Koech, a maize farmer in Nandi North District, said: "If we receive too much rain, we could lose the crop we have in our farms as it would rot before or during harvest. If the rains come before the maize dries, we might have to cut it and sell it as green maize."
However, agricultural officials have warned maize farmers against selling most of the crop as green maize as this would impact on food security in the long run.
Odoyo Bittar, the district agricultural officer for Bureti District, said public campaigns to sensitize farmers against selling all their crops as green maize were under way.
"We want to encourage them to keep the crop until its harvest as grain as this will boost food security in the region," Bittar said.
The Ministry of State for Special Programmes and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA Kenya) have called a workshop on 15 September in Nairobi to discuss El Niño-preparedness plans.