How plant clinics are saving Kenya from pests and hunger

Image Credit: Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI)

Over 75 per cent of Kenya’s population, with the majority concentrated in the rural areas, rely on agriculture not just for food but as a source of income. It is a sector the country counts on for economic development, contributing over 25 per cent to the economy. But small holder farmers, who form the bulk of the food producers have been grappling with a myriad of challenges, key among them pests and diseases. In fact they lose up to 40 per cent of their yields to these pests according to Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KARLO) the premier research institution in the country. The situation has been exacerbated by changing weather patterns that have seen the emergence of new pests and mutation of others, some which are attacking crops they traditionally didn't. But in the wake of these issues that have threatened food production and ultimately fanning the hunger cycle, Kenya is counting on a model that is giving farmers more personalized attention to tame these diseases. 

Dubbed the 'plant clinics', the model which resembles the human health concept, involves officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, researchers from agricultural institutions and scientists who are christened 'plant doctors'. They visit markets, churches and schools on select days and pitch tents there. Farmers then bring samples of their ‘sick plants’ which the doctors analyze before giving a diagnosis and recommending treatment. 

The concept being championed by both government of Kenya and private research institutions like Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI), have so far been rolled out in major food producing counties in Kenya, and has trained over 268 plant doctors and documented more than 11,600 plant health queries since they were set up in 2010.

In Kiambu on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital Nairobi at Kirigiti market, a queue of farmers holding polythene bags snakes its way through the market. Two men are attending to the farmers under a tree. They have a table that has brochures, scalpel, laptops, and magnifying lens. They are the plant doctors who have been stationed here, and visit the area every Saturday. Humphrey Wekesa, one of the doctors is a senior agronomist from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Jude Thoiya listens and watches attentively as Humphrey dissects a tomato plant he has brought after noticing worms which have made the leaves wilt and destroyed a section of his yields. The retired civil servant has been growing fresh produce since he retired five years ago. “Your tomatoes have been affected by Whiteflies. You are lucky they haven’t gotten into the severe stage of the attack. Don’t spray any pesticides yet, just try to use wood ash and sprinkle it over the plants. Try that for a week and then come back here and update me on how it goes,” Humphrey advises Jude. Jude sighs heavily. He has spent a fortune on conventional pesticide and nothing seemed to have worked. “I can’t believe the solution could be in something as simple as wood ash,” he says as he leaves and another farmers prepares to be attended to. 

But beyond giving farmers solutions to their farm woes, the clinics have been hailed for alerting farmers before major crop attacks.

They have been instrumental in taming the spread of the Maize Lethal Necrosis, christened the cancer of maize, which struck Kenya’s major food producing zones in 2012 and wiped over 300,000 tonnes of yields in that year alone. The clinics have also nipped in the bud the spread of Tomato leaf miner, commonly referred to as Tuta Absoluta that has crippled tomato production in Kenya according to CABI.

The clinics have also played surveillance role especially against foreign threats. At the Kenyan Uganda border where four clinics have been stationed, they have averted the spread of the notorious black stem rust called Ug 1999 originating from Uganda. Because Kenya and Uganda farmers trade freely, the disease is easier to transport. Samples submitted at the clinics spotted high levels of the fungus. 

As Kenya’s population burgeons, putting pressure on food production at a time when the food situation has been classified as serious with 21 per cent of the population said to be undernourished, plant clinics are viewed as a panacea to the country’s episodic hunger.