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Mystery Maize Disease Strikes Kenya Farms

  • Alex Pena

BOMET, Kenya - A maize disease is sweeping through Kenya’s small farming communities and, in the South Rift Valley, there are few who haven’t been affected.

Holding up evidence of his dying maize crop, a farmer in the Kenyan community of Bomet is the latest to become entangled in the maize mystery.

“Everything is affected, The five acres [2 hectares], all the way," he says pointing toward his fields, "is all affected.”

The problem has prompted the local farming leader, assistant police chief and the CEO of a cereal growers association in Nairobi to visit the small farm.

“They gave us information, after the first rain in January, that it must be something with the rain," says Sigei Aron, the farming leader.

Assistant police chief Samsung Ngetich suspects the problem lies elsewhere. “I think there was a supply of the wrong seed,”

“How would all those companies give the wrong seed, at the same time, in the same area?” asks David Nyameino, who heads the cereal grower's association.

Nyameino, who considers himself a maize expert, examines the farmer's dry, yellowish crop.

“At this stage, this should be green maize," he says. "But there's no maize...this is what should have been maize, but it’s already dead.”

The Kenyan government estimates 40 percent or more of the South Rift Valley's maize crop has been affected.

Stopping the mysteriously spreading disease is Nyameino's number one priority.

“The area that gives Kenya real maize is in the North Rift," Nyameino says. "If this disease appears in the north rift, Kenya will become hopeless in terms of food...Kenyans believe maize is the food security for the country."

It’s unclear what makes the disease spread. Some believe it's the wind or insects, or both. Limited information is also a problem.

“What is lacking here is awareness of what should be done," Nyameino says, adding that the farmers are receiving contradictory information. "They are saying that they have been advised the stocks should not be fed to the animals, but the current information we have from the government is there is no problem to feed the animals with the stock.”

Aron, the local farming leader, planted a test field in search of answers. He successfully grew sweet potatoes here, and in the same field as the disease-infected maize, he grew millet, another staple food for Kenya.

Although that's a positive sign, assistant police chief Ngetich predicts the worst.

“We are fearing the children might not go to school next time, and also there will be no food for the community," he says. "So we need help, if there can be somewhere, so we can assist these people, to cut down this and maybe to plant short season crops to save their lives."

Meanwhile, the group continues to investigate, looking for a cause and trying to solve the mystery, in hopes of saving lives.