Scientists at an India-based institute are developing new varieties of pigeon pea, a high-protein dietary staple. In the eastern Kenyan district of Makueni, a research team is testing more than 40 varieties of pigeon pea that can also be grown in Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. Cathy Majtenyi visited Makueni District and files this report for VOA.
Business is booming in Priscilla Mutie's shop in her eastern Kenyan village. Customers come from far and wide to buy the pigeon peas she grows on her 4-hectare farm.
She says selling these new varieties has made a world of difference to her. "My income has raised from the pigeon peas that I got from ICRISAT, because from it I am able to feed myself and my family," Mutie said. "The surplus I sell to my neighbors and that income has helped me purchase cattle, build myself a home, purchase decent clothing, and most importantly purchase a mobile phone that has helped me look for markets."
Mutie is one of a handful of farmers in Makueni District who are growing new varieties of pigeon peas being introduced to Kenya by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT.
In Kenya, ICRISAT is growing more than 40 varieties of pigeon pea cross-bred to thrive in different altitudes, temperatures, rainfall, and other conditions.
They also want a breed resistant to wilt, a disease that hits pigeon pea plants especially hard.
Farmers have cultivated pigeon pea in this East African nation for centuries. But traditional varieties tend to take about 10 months to mature.
Some of the new varieties being developed and tested in Kenya mature within five months of being planted, enabling farmers to have two or more harvests a year.
And that is good news for farmers such as Bernard Nzuma, who says that his family's food security has increased because of the new varieties that he grows.
"It resists the drought so there is food security. I'm able to have income and take care of the family needs. The pigeon pea leaves are good for improving the fertility of the soil. I use the leaves to feed my animals and also as fertilizer," Nzuma said.
Famine is a common occurrence in Kenya, where droughts and poor government planning cause frequent food shortages.
Maize, considered to be the key crop in Kenya, does not flourish in times of drought.
But pigeon pea grows well in dry times, says scientist Said Silim, director of ICRISAT's Eastern and Southern Africa program.
He says that even maize yields can improve if the maize is grown next to pigeon peas. "It (pigeon pea) is a multiple purpose crop. It is drought tolerant. When other crops fail, the crop itself fixes nitrogen from the air making it into fertilizer that it uses and what is left is used by your maize," Silim said.
Pigeon pea is also a nutritious food source for low-income earners.
"It is a poor man's meat. It is high in protein and is very nutritious, actually," he adds. "We work in Eastern Kenya with orphans, some of who are HIV/AIDS infected, and they gained weight by using protein," Silim said.
And people like the new varieties, says farmer and businesswoman Mutie.
"They say that the ICRISAT peas are fairly large and tasty. They have a lovely color that is consistent," Mutie states.
Silim says he and his team are researching ways to increase yields within the varieties and are looking at how to expand the harvesting of the new varieties beyond Makueni District.