Orphans or Siblings? Opportunities and Constraints in Alternative Dryland Staple Crops (maize briefing 5)

  • Published 17/03/10

Sorghum, millet, cowpea, pigeon pea and green grams: these resilient plants once dominated smallholder farms in the drought-prone regions of Eastern Kenya. But in the last 50 years these ‘orphan crops’ – as they are known today – have been all but replaced by a single crop: maize.

There are many reasons why maize has displaced a suite of crops far better suited to dryland environments. Today, maize is economically, culturally and politically, the most important crop in Kenya. But for small-scale farmers in semi-arid areas, dependence on maize increases vulnerability to shocks and stresses. This became clear in recent years, when periods of extended drought and post-election violence and its aftermath left families in Eastern Kenya without maize and therefore without food.

Findings from STEPS research suggests that barriers to promoting the cultivation and consumption of these dryland crops may have been overstated. Dryland crops should not be thought of as ‘orphans’, but rather as ‘siblings’, grown in small quantities alongside maize on small plots of land. And while people do express a preference for maize consumption, our findings point to the pivotal role of markets in facilitating or constraining the adoption of these crops.

This is the fifth in a series of seven briefings on our Maize project.