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Finger millet is a staple food for South Asia and East Africa where it has been grown widely for thousands of years. The importance of finger millet as one of the solutions to food security cannot be underestimated considering the many uses of the crop in a farmer’s household. It is a source of food for many households across eastern Africa and beyond, used in brewing traditional beer and the straw as animal fodder. Such versatility makes finger millet an ideal food security crop.

Benta Auma Ochola from Siaya County, Gem District, Sagam area is a farmer who has embraced modern finger millet farming practices as well as improved finger millet varieties. On her four-acre piece of land at Marenyu sub-location, Benta farms maize, sweet potatoes among other food crops and keeps animals.

In 2012, Prof Matthew Dida a researcher on the sorghum and finger millet project from Maseno University in Kenya introduced her to finger millet farming and she has not looked back. That year she harvested 67 gorogoros (two kilogram tin farmers use when measuring grain) equivalent to 134 kilograms, on a quarter of five-acre shamba (land). In 2013 she increased land under finger millet to half an acre buoyed by the good yields from the previous year and harvested 80 gorogoros.

This year she wants plans on increasing acreage under finger millet as her yields gets better and better. “By selling one gorogoro at Kshs. 150 (Kshs. 75 per kilo equivalent to $0.87), I am making more money from finger millet than I used to do from maize,” Benta beamed enthusiastically.

Prof Dida who has been implementing this project has been educating farmers about modern farming technologies whilst providing them with high yielding finger millet varieties.

Benta has been planting Maseno 60D and P224 improved varieties. These varieties are superior over the traditional varieties as they flower in 60 days and are ready to harvest in 80 days compared to other commercial varieties, which take up to 120 days.

“Maseno 60D passed the National Performance trials in 2012/2013 and is currently undergoing DUS testing by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) before being released officially as a finger millet variety,” Prof Dida explained. “We plan on disseminating these varieties to as many as 10,000 farmers in Kenya and across the region.”

Benta’s story is one that can be scaled out to a wider community with significant impact. However, it has taken the researchers many years to develop these varieties, a situation that needs to change if we are to bring these agricultural innovations quicker to the marketplace to address farmers’ productivity challenges. The conventional breeding methods although effective tend to take a long time because they are not very precise. Modern tools including genomics would augment and hasten varietal development process.

In March 2014, Bio-Innovate Program initiated a finger millet genome sequencing project to complement the work on the identifying, developing and delivering millet varieties to smallholder farmers in the eastern Africa region project that has been on-going for the past three years funded by the Program.

Sequencing a genome in layman’s language is “decoding” a genome to understand what each gene does. This will be the first ever of such work ever done on finger millet. Genome sequencing will give finger millet breeders a map that can be used to easily locate and identify genes responsible for progressive traits in finger millet varieties to assist the breeding process.

Bio-Innovate has partnered with the African Orphan Crop Consortium to initiative the sequencing of finger millet genome. This initiative is being coordinated by The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics (ICRISAT) regional team based in Nairobi in partnership with Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub, University of California, University of Georgia (UGA) and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

The knowledge gained and molecular tools developed in this work will be transferred to breeders in the eastern Africa region to be routinely used in their breeding program. Finger millet has had low research investments and the genetic potential of this crop has not been fully exploited to address the productivity constraints affecting the smallholder farmers – especially drought and diseases, with productivity averaging 0.4 – 2 tons/ha against a potential of 5 – 6 tons/ha from research done in Kenya.

“The sequencing of the finger millet genome is important because it allows for the development of molecular tools to complement the conventional breeding currently used by the breeders.” Dr Allan Liavoga stated.

The combination of conventional and advanced technologies will lead to more efficient breeding process that deliver far superior varieties to the smallholder farmers in a comparatively shorter period of time. This is expected to significantly improve the productivity of finger millet and mitigate climate change, consequently enhance the competitiveness of this orphan crop – contributing to food security and improved livelihoods in East Africa with potential spillover effect in sub-Saharan Africa.

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