Forschungseinheit „Landnutzung & Biokonvention“

“Pearl Millet seeds in South-East Kenya”

In Sub-Saharan Africa maize is the major staple crop for several centuries, due to its nutritional value, the high yields and the broad range of adaptation to the local climates, mainly in humid and semihumid areas. These aspects are also responsible for crop growthin almost all parts of Kenya. However growth conditions for the C4-crop are less favourable in the semiarid areas due to lacking mechanisms of drought resistance of the crop. Although smallholders try to plant maize even in those areas, most of the maize varieties are hybrid varieties and expensive for the farmers, because they are not available all over the country. Therefore this small project is focussingon pearl millets as one of the traditional cropsin Africa due to different ecophysiological (drought resistant) and nutritional advantages, especially in the semiarid areas of eastern Kenya. The project takes place in the County of Kitui, situated in the Eastern Province of Kenya. The central part of Kitui County consists of an undulating plateau at about 1 100 m altitude, surmounted by ridges and hills which rise to 1 700 m. The main area of the county, the peneplain around the central Upper Midlands, belongs to the Livestock-Millet Zones (LM 5 and IL 5), where especially early maturing millets should be the leading grain varieties. According to the statements of the Farm Management Handbook of KenyaVol. 2 the present dominating food crop is still maize there. It is widely planted and due to unfavorable climatic conditions, with subsequent crop failures and a high risk of famine. 

Study area:

a) Socioeconomic aspects: The study area is situated in the division of Mwitika in the eastern part of Kitui County, near the town of Endau.The core economic mainstay in the area is livestock on farms, averaging 5 ha, with zebu cows, goats,sheep or chicken; 4.74 ha in average are used for annual crops. Most farmers combine the mainly free grazing of the animals with cultivation of maize and beans in an agropastoralistic way. The population of Mwitika Division rose from 19702 in 1999 up to 36912 inhabitants in 2009. 97.10% of households are engaged in crop farming. This makes an absolute number of 6510 households. 

b) Ecological aspects: The area is climatically characterized by the Agro-Ecological Zones of the Lower Midland Livestock-Millet Zone (LM 5 – 486 km²) and the Lowland Livestock-Millet Zone (IL 5 – 237 km²), described with a very short (vs), respectively a very uncertain first cropping season and a short to very short (s/vs) or very short (vs) second one. Predominant soils are of moderate to low fertility. Moderate conditions can be found on the footslopes of smaller mountains, but the main area is covered by erosional plain soils with low fertility. The lower parts at the foothills of Mount Endau are shaped by well drained, very deep, red to dark reddish Ferralsols, mixed with sandy or loosely coarsedferralicArenosols and ferralo-chromic Luvisols. The dominant soils on the peneplainsarehighly weathered rhodic and orthicFerralsols, defined by dusky red to dark reddish color, well drained and deep to very deep conditions and a friable sandy clay to clay texture.

Especially suitable for the Agro-Ecological Zones IL5 and LM 5 with subzones vs and vs/s (second cropping season), are the pearl millet varieties bred in KARI-Katumani Agric. Research Station, Kat/PM1, Kat/PM2, and Kat/PM3. They need about 60 days till physical maturity during the growing period and 230, 200 resp. 160 mm of rainfall only. For comparison: the dominant maize variety in the region is Dryland comp. maize (DLC,)which requires 75 days and 250 mm of rainfall. DLC maizeis accounted as an example of poor yield potentials for the second rainy season. Divergent from the optimal growing conditions this results in estimated crop yields of about 660 kg/ha. One big problem with maize in this area is the fact of crop failures, which is twice higher than for millets (or sorghum). Even higher potential yields could be gained by the use of millet varieties and the potential of crop failures of pearl millets are 1 out of 10 cropping seasons.

First phase of the project:  August 2014 till February 2015

Seeds of millet varieties “Kat/PM1” and “Kat/PM2” were distributed in August 2014, before the onset of the second rainy season, which usually starts mid to end of October.In the area they can produce yields of about 1050 kg/ha in average. Under fair conditions in good years pearl millet Kat/PM1is able toproduce almost the double of the yields of DLC maize and with far less probabilities of crop failure.Kat/PM1 has bristles against birds, Kat/PM2 is eatable already in its dough state; this is important in case the rainy season stops before 60 days.The seeds were purchased at the Seed Unit of the KARI Research Station in Katumani, County Machakos. 100 farmers received 2 packets of Kat/PM1 and Kat/PM2 with half a kilo each, one for the second rainy season 2014, starting by mid to end of October.With the help of 3 local colleagues the farmers received a precise planting manual, which was translated into the local language kikamba by 2 colleagues from National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi. Furthermore they got a small rain gauge together with a record sheet and were trained by the colleagues in operating the rain gauge. Together with the local fellows the farmers were interviewed before they received the seeds to get general and socioeconomic information about the situation of the farmers and their farms. In February 2015 the farmers will be interviewed a second time, especially about the performance of the millet cropscompared to traditional maize crops in terms of yields, protection against birds and crop failure. Together with the recorded rainfall a detailed comparison between the yields of millets and local maize varieties should be possible.

A second project phase including a visit during the first rainy season 2015, starting in March/April 2015 was conducted and results will be published soon.


  • TEUCHER, M., HORNETZ, B., JAETZOLD, R. (2016): Incoming livelihood through use of adapted crop varieties –case study from a semiarid region of East Kenya.- Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Vol. 40, No. 6, 614-632

Participating institutions:

Trier University (Germany)
(Dipl.-Biogeogr. Mike Teucher, Prof. Dr. B. Hornetz, Prof. em Dr. R. Jaetzold, Dipl.-Biogeogr. Björn Girkens)
Ministry of Agriculture, Nairobi (Kenya)
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI/Katumani Agric. Research Station), Katumani (Kenya)
National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi (Kenya) 

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