Drought tolerant crops provide relief for smallholder farmers in Kenya's drylands

AICCRA is scaling the provision of integrated drought tolerant crops and climate services developed by ICRISAT in Kenya, which has been shown to boost crop yields by 55 percent. 

Severe drought in parts of Eastern and Southeastern Kenya due to the changing climate has caused widespread crop failure, deterioration of household food security and loss of livelihood sources for hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers. 

To help Kenyan farmers cope with reduced amounts of rainfall and changing weather patterns, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) partnered with the Kenyan county governments of Kitui, Makueni and Taita-Taveta to pilot demonstration farms in 2022 for high-yielding, drought-tolerant and early maturing varieties of pearl millet, sorghum, and pigeon peas.

And with Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA) these innovations are now being scaled in Kenya's drylands. 

Jane's story

For five consecutive years, Jane Mbiti, 52, a smallholder farmer from Mutomo ward in Kitui county, Eastern Kenya, had witnessed her crop production dwindle as the region’s ongoing drought intensified.

The reduced rainfall, coupled with unpredictable seasonal patterns, meant that Jane faced an uncertain future of poor crop production and a lack of animal feed for her mixed farm.

Jane was among the selected lead farmers to set up demo farms.

I was facing the sixth year of losses because there was no rain. I was ready to try anything. The extension officer said the new seeds from ICRISAT can withstand the (drought), I said let’s try it.

Jane Mbiti

For the demonstration farmers, ICRISAT provided seeds of pigeon pea (Mbaazi 3, Mbaazi 4, and Mbaazi M1), sorghum (Gadam, IESV 24029SH), and pearl millet (KAT PM3, ICMV 88809) to the selected lead farmers.

Alongside the seeds, ICRISAT also provided fertilizer and training to lead farmers and extension officers on the set-up of the demo plots and facilitated extension services to help farmers monitor their crops for the season.

We established 30 demonstration farms, 10 in each of the three counties, and organized a series of training on the best practices for managing drought-tolerant crops in conservation agriculture for farmers and extension officers,

Dr Amos Ngwira, ICRISAT

The training ICRISAT provided to lead farmers and extension workers included instructions on establishing demonstration plots of drought-tolerant crops grown both as a single crop on the farm and alongside other crops.

Farmers were also trained in applying conservation agriculture such as minimal tillage and conventional tillage systems.

The process consisted of implementing plots with conventional and conservation tillage systems to help compare the differences between the plot management practices for each of the trials.

Despite below-average rainfall, the crop from the demo farms performed well, yielding an average of 1,037 kilograms per hectare, per crop. This is an increase of 55% in comparison to previous seasons of local varieties.

Reaching more farmers with the drought tolerant varieties

As part of the efforts to scale up the adoption of drought-tolerant crops to help farmers cope with the effects of climate change in drylands, ICRISAT and Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA) designed a farmer-led model to increase the number of beneficiaries of the project.

The owners of the 30 demonstration farms were each provided with 50 kilogram of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) fertilizer, two kilograms of pigeon pea seed, one kilogram of pearl millet or sorghum, and pesticides.

Each demo farmer recruited an additional 50 beneficiary farmers, resulting in a total of 1,500 farmers actively participating in the project, all of whom received 250 grams of seeds to try in their farms.

To increase the number of direct beneficiaries even further, each of the 1,500 beneficiary farmers will share 10 kilograms of harvested seeds with another 10 farmers (one kilogram per farmer) for the 2023 cropping season.

The project held a series of farmers’ field days for training that had farmers follow the different stages of crop management as well as linked farmers to input providers and grain processors.

Gerald Mbaya, a sub-county crops officer conducts a training session at the demonstration farm during a farmers' field day in Mutomo Ward, in Kitui County, Kenya. 

Integration with gender and climate information services

AICCRA has emphasised on gender-responsive approaches when implementing projects that promote climate-smart agriculture (CSA) innovations and technologies.

This is because women in rural areas are more vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change since they provide the majority of farm labour and depend directly on agricultural products.

In line with AICCRA's objectives for gender and social inclusion, the project made deliberate efforts to ensure that more women directly participated and benefited from the drought-tolerant varieties activity.

Out of the initial 30 demonstration farms, 63 percent were run by women. The scaling model also ensured that of the total 1,500 participating farmers, 75 percent of them were women.

Further efforts—like the provision of transport for farmers from far-flung areas—saw a record number of women attend farmers’ field days.

AICCRA is also bundling climate information services (CIS) through the Ag Data Hub partnerships with the public and private sector, which is deploying agriculture and climate advisory services through digital platforms in ICRISAT project areas.

In the second and third quarters of 2022, while the drought-tolerant demo trials were underway, climate advisories were sent out to a selected number of registered farmers in Taita-Taveta county who were also running the drought-tolerant crop demo farms.

According to the Taita-Taveta county directory of agriculture Doris Kiia, the mix of drought-tolerant crops with the climate advisory services could not have come at a better time for farmers in areas where the effects of climate change have been devastating. 

In Taita-Taveta the drought was more severe than anywhere else, but the agro-advisory services and the (drought tolerant) seeds from ICRISAT helped farmers plan and prepare well for the season. We want to expand this further to reach even more farmers.

Doris Kiia

Though still in its infancy, AICCRA's integration of CIS and agriculture advisory provides real-time weather and climate advisory services which will allow farmers to make important decisions on when and how to grow, manage and harvest drought-tolerant crops.


David Ngome - Communications Officer, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and AICCRA Kenya

Faith Saalu - Science Officer, ICRISAT