Feed the Future
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The Key Quality Hybrid Maize Needs for Better Productivity in Western Kenya

This post was written by Alex Russell.

In Sirandu village in western Kenya, down a dirt road where girls in white school uniforms walk in a loose line of twos and threes, Joshua Oyugi follows a path through his two-acre property where he farms beans, cassava, sweet potato, banana and — most importantly — maize.

“Drought really spoils our crops,” says Oyugi. “You know, it has been very dry. It has really spoiled my bananas. But when it rains, you can’t believe.”

The climate Oyugi describes is unique to the parts of western Kenya situated between 1,000 and 1,500m above sea level. The challenge for maize farmers at this altitude is how to increase their yields when few, if any, improved maize varieties at local dealers are tailored for the mid-altitude climate and ecological conditions.

A Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access (AMA Innovation Lab) research team from the University of California — Davis and the Tegemeo Institute for Agricultural Policy and Development tested whether hybrid maize seeds tailored for Kenya’s mid-altitude regions could increase yields and income for small-scale farmers.

Oyugi was one of the farmers who decided to try the Western Seed Company hybrids the study made available. “It is better because the yields,” he says. “And also the quality of that flour. It’s very good. People like it. The flour is sweet and white. Milk white, very white.”

Tailoring Hybrid Maize

Hybrid seeds are the product of breeding two distinct varieties of a plant into a single, first-generation hybrid that has all the desired characteristics of both parent lines. This is how plant breeders naturally create plants that are drought-tolerant or disease-resistant. First-generation hybrid seeds also benefit from heterosis, which results in bigger plants and significantly higher crop yields.

Hybrid maize seeds hold tremendous promise for small-scale farmers, especially those at risk of poverty and food insecurity. However, low adoption rates are common in developing economies worldwide, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Hybrid maize adoption rates in western Kenya hover around 40 percent.

One challenge may be the cost. Hybrid seeds must be purchased each year, while local or traditional varieties can be saved from the last harvest. Replanting seeds from a first-generation hybrid crop produces smaller plants that don’t predictably reproduce the characteristics of the two original parent lines.

A challenge specific to western Kenya may be that many of the hybrid seeds available were developed for climates and conditions at higher altitudes. These seeds don’t perform as well in Kenya’s mid-altitudes, where the climate is warmer and the growing season is shorter. It is in these parts of western Kenya, where the average poverty rate is about 31 percent, that tailored hybrid maize could make the biggest difference.

Higher Maize Yields in Western Kenya

The AMA Innovation Lab tested the impact of hybrid maize seeds that have been recognized for particularly high yields in western Kenya’s mid-altitude areas. The seeds were developed by Western Seed Company, a Kenya-based producer that has attracted venture capital funding from AGRA and social impact investors, including Acumen Fund.

Between 2013 and 2015, about 1,200 farmers in Kenya’s former Western and Nyanza provinces took part in the randomized controlled trial (RCT). Farmers in the treatment group received Western Seed 250-gram trial seed packets and the option to purchase full bags to be delivered to their homes. The cost of the seeds was about KSH 2,000 per acre, which is about USD $20.

“We found that making those seeds available had a very large impact on maize productivity,” says AMA Innovation Lab director Michael Carter, the lead principal investigator on the study. “So there really was something in those seeds that was different.”

Average yields for farmers who had the option to purchase the hybrid seeds were about 40 percent higher compared to farmers in the control group. For farmers like Oyugi in Sirandu, who already consistently used hybrid seed, that increase was 80 to 90 percent. Pairing high-quality fertilizer with the seeds boosted yields even higher.

Follow-up surveys showed that the higher yields increased the number of meals these households ate and the variety of their foods. Incomes also went up but modestly. Across the sample, maize only accounted for about 25 percent of total household income. 

The Future of Maize Productivity

Right now, Kenya faces a serious maize shortage due in part to drought and in part to government policies. The price of unga has spiked. In May of 2017, the Government of Kenya imported 30,000 metric tons of maize flour from Mexico. On July 4, Kenya signed a bilateral trade agreement with Zambia to import 100,000 metric tons of maize.

However, maize productivity in Kenya has been in decline for decades. Over three-fourths of all maize crops in Kenya are grown by small-scale farmers primarily for their own consumption. For these farmers, maize yields at an average 1.6 tons per hectare of land are about a fourth of what’s possible with today’s technologies like hybrid seeds.

“Increased agricultural productivity is key to both increasing food security and reducing poverty,” says Tegemeo director Mary Mathenge, a principal investigator on the AMA Innovation Lab study.

The Western Seed experiment showed that making hybrid seed tailored for agro-ecological niches can improve yields. However, there remain challenges that only public policy can overcome.

One of these is ensuring that high-quality inputs are available at local agrodealers. In addition to conducting the RCT, the research team tested seeds from local shops. They found that the average germination rate was 76 percent. In some samples, as few as zero seeds germinated. Kenya’s seed regulations stipulate that even for basic seed, 90 percent should not be damaged or poor-sprouting.

Another challenge is how well the for-profit seed sector can reach underserved farmers like those in western Kenya. The question remains whether tailoring hybrid seeds for such a niche can sustain a small company like Western Seed, even with a market of ready buyers.

“If agroecological niches are not profitable,” says Carter, “then what’s the public policy to get the genetic material there?”

Read more about hybrid maize in western Kenya.

Alex Russell manages communications at the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access.