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Story Publication logo December 6, 2009

Kenyans Struggle as Drought Turns Rift Valley into Wasteland


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African farmers already struggle to grow sufficient maize, which is a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry...

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I grew up in western Texas and covered the Midwest's devastating drought of 1988.

I know what a drought looks like, but I've never seen anything like the devastation to a portion of the Rift Valley near the Tanzania border.

The savanna, where locals said the grass should be as much as 2 feet high, is barren except for scattered acacia trees and cattle carcasses baking in the sun. Maasai tribesmen, distinctive for their long poles and colorful wraps, were herding along a road a few emaciated cattle that were barely recognizable as dairy cows. There, the cattle, ribs showing and udders shrunken, could forage in small patches of grass, barely an inch tall, that have grown where what rain that has fallen has pooled. It's the only green in sight.

On one Maasai family's farm, 50 of 200 cattle died. But these farmers are relatively well off. They had saved the rest of their cattle by feeding them corn and hay, which is something any American farmer would do in the same circumstances. But in east Africa, that's not commonly done and for many poor farmers it's not even a realistic option. The cattle eat grass or nothing at all. Across great swaths of Kenya this year, there is simply no grass.

Farmers said they haven't had a good year of rainfall since 2005. Yet, in a regions like this many farmers persist in trying to grow corn and other crops. The farmers who can afford wells have some crops. That's how the Maasai family had the corn they needed to save most of their herd.

But then there are farmers such as Janet Kaindu, 32, who relied on faulty weather forecasts in October that predicted El Nino would bring heavy rains across Kenya in November. She has now lost the second crop in a row on her three-acre plot.

There is a reason why corn grows so well in Iowa. There's plenty of water, and the soil is some of the best in the world, and farmers can afford to use the best seeds and plenty of fertilizer. Why do east Africans persist in growing corn in a place like this part of the Rift Valley? It's the crop they know, and it's what they want to eat.

Wild elephants won't stop biotech corn crop

In some parts of the world, biotech companies have had to worry about keeping environmental activists out of their research plots. Companies can ill afford to have these big-money experiments ruined. In Kenya, scientists have a different concern - elephants.

I headed south of Nairobi to the village of Kiboko and a national agricultural research station that specializes in study of the effects of drought. It never rains, I'm told, between May and November, making it easy for agronomists to study the impact of drought on crops simply by withholding the irrigation water upon which the plants depend.

On a few acres of this farm, scientists plan next year to try a plot of corn lines that are being genetically engineered to yield better than conventional hybrids when rainfall is insufficient. That's a common problem throughout east Africa with corn, a staple food crop that isn't particularly well suited to the region because of the lack of reliable precipitation. The corn will contain a gene that U.S. biotech giant Monsanto Co. developed and contributed to the project. Monsanto would like to see the African version available to poor farmers when the company it rolls out more sophisticated drought-tolerant corn seeds in the United States over the next decade. The project, called Water-Efficient Maize for Africa, is being funded by the Gates foundation.

Scientists with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the Kenyan research institute are practicing for the field test by conducting a mock trial of conventional corn using all the security measures that will be needed - and required by Kenyan regulations - to prevent pollen from escaping from the research site. That includes having 24-hour security and a high fence topped with barbed wire. But it also means digging a trench around the site to keep the elephants out, the fence not being a sufficient deterrent.

How valuable this biotech crop turns out to be remains to be seen, of course. That depends on how effective this gene is in the African cultivars it will be tested in, and then there's the small problem of getting into the hands of farmers without a well-developed system to distribute seeds to poor farmers for whom they are intended.

The farmers, in turn, don't have the fertilizer or the expertise these scientists have. Elephants are the least of their issues.

Amid signs of drought, 'let the rain come'

Fog shrouded the surrounding hills as a steady rain fell in the town of Machakos, Kenya, driving customers from the shops and market stalls in the middle of town. Tarps were draped over bins of grain and beans to keep them dry.

But just try to find a merchant unhappy with the rain. "No problem," said one vegetable vendor. "It's only for a while. Then we'll have enough food for Kenya."

Despite the rain, evidence of the drought that devastated Kenya this year was all around.

Some of the farms in the area are irrigated by pumps that pull water from nearby streams. On many farms, promising new crops of corn, beans and vegetables were coming up where farmers who could afford seed had planted at the right time.

But on other farms, much of the ground was still bare. In this region, just south of the equator, it's warm enough to grow crops year around, but some of the farmers who had lost their crops earlier this year had failed to get new ones started. One farmer I talked to had replanted just a small portion of his plot, the part with the best soil.

In Machakos, the farm supply stores on the town square reported that sales of hybrid seed were up this year, because farmers who would normally use as seed some of the corn they had harvested the season before didn't have any grain to plant. But while seed sales were up, the stores were selling less fertilizer. Many farmers can't afford both.

Some have a few cattle and use the manure to fertilize their crops, but this year there's less of that to go around, too. Forty percent of the cattle in the area died this year because of the lack of grass, according to a livestock specialist who was behind the counter at the 7-Up farm store.

Nearby at the cereal stores, where the locals buy staples such as rice, beans and especially corn in bulk, there had been a recent run on bags of what Kenyan-grown corn there was. Store clerks said money-strapped farmers, who have little or no access to credit to buy their supplies, were buying the bags of corn to use as seed because they were cheaper than the hybrid seed at the agro-dealers on the square.

A 90-kilo bag of maize costs about $33. A 2-kilo bag of hybrid seed, enough to cover a quarter acre, goes for about $5.

"Let the rain come," said Christopher Mutua, a clerk at the Visions cereal store. "Tomorrow," he continued, the customers "will come."



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