Variation in yield trial results point to environmental differences
The present study aimed at identifying high-yielding lowland rice varieties for cultivation in Kenya by evaluating a set of 11 lowland rice varieties in different environments. The results showed that the variation in performance of the rice varieties could be attributed to a strong influence of environmental differences. Such variation may be due to differences in rainfall and soil texture across the different locations where the experiments were established. Indeed, the rice grain yield in clay soil is known to be higher than that in sandy soil (Dou et al. 2016) and is closely correlated with total rainfall(Saito et al. 2006). The significant effect of genotype by environment (G × E) interaction reflected on the differential response of a given lowland rice variety in various environments. This difference in response demonstrated that, in addition to the strong effect of the environments, the G × E interaction had a remarkable effect on genotypic performance in different environments. The significant effect of G × E has been previously noted in rice (Sharifi et al. 2017) and several other crops. The relative contributions of G × E interaction effects for grain yield noted in this study were similar to those of another study evaluating 27 rice genotypes in four fields during three consecutive years in northern Ghana (Katsura et al. 2016). In our study, Komboka showed the highest mean grain yield, while the local checks had the lowest average grain yield. The grain yield performance of Komboka was higher than the national average grain yield of the national released varieties. Komboka’s high performance could be explained by its earliness when compared to the other varieties which is an important aspect to consider because of the unpredictable rains observed in Kenya in the recent past. Farmers usually consider earliness as one of the most important criteria when selecting a variety to grow in Kenya. Reliable identification and release of rice genotypes based on the yield and stability index (Sarr et al. 2021) was successfully achieved in the case of Komboka in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. Komboka was moderately resistant to blast disease, based on field evaluations. However, as disease pressure was not imposed on the variety (which is a standard procedure in hotspot disease screening), there is a need to further test the cultivar using artificial inoculation and/or at hotspots with conditions favourable for major diseases in the region.
Farmers look for more than yield-related rice traits
Komboka was introduced to Kenya from Tanzania. In Tanzania, Komboka was first introduced in 2009 and thereafter released in February 2013. In Kenya, Komboka was released in June 2013 (KEPHIS: Updated_2022_January_National_Variety_List. In. Kenya 2022) after its preliminary introduction and testing under multi-location trials in 2011, upon which one of the Kenyan NARES breeders requested seeds from one of Tanzania’s national research centres–Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute in Morogoro region (TARI Katrin), for release under the East African Community agreement and KEPHIS guidelines on release of varieties that have been officially released in any country within the regional economic blocks to which Kenya is a member (Law 2016). While Komboka was introduced much earlier in Tanzania, it may not have picked up much probably due to Tanzanians’ coastal cultural preference for tastier but low-yielding highly aromatic local rice varieties that not only do well in low mechanized and rainfed setups but also fetch premium prices, predominantly the local Supa rice variety (Kangile et al. 2018). In contrast, Kenyans, especially in non-coastal areas, may have less of a cultural heritage preference toward specific local aromatic rice varieties. More emphasis may be placed on varieties that have a more competitive market advantage, accelerating efforts by highly mechanized market-oriented farmers to generate more cash earnings. When compared to Tanzania, it is likely that Komboka could pick up much faster in Kenya due to its higher-yielding nature, suitability for both irrigated and rainfed ecologies and potential for mass market production, thus reducing the country’s reliance on imports (Komboka and rice to double yield, boost food security 2020). While Komboka was released around the same time as TXD 306 in Kenya, the latter is yet to pick up in the country. This could be due to Komboka’s higher-yielding trait. Komboka, meaning ‘liberate’ in Swahili, out-yielded TXD 306 by more than 15%. In Tanzania, however, the improved aromatic TXD 306 variety has picked up much faster probably because aroma is considered a must-have rice trait moreso in Tanzania, where a non-aromatic rice variety was not easily adopted by farmers (Singh et al. 2013). While the momentum for widespread adoption of Komboka in Kenya’s Mwea region is currently slow, there is potential for Komboka to put in check cheap imports (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA): Komboka rice to put in check cheap imports that thrive on the name of pishori variety 2021) thus reducing the huge import gap.
While Komboka is a high-yielding variety, this trait is not necessarily the most important trait for farmers. This finding is consistent with other studies that have shown that some high-yielding varieties do receive low ranking during farmers’ evaluations (Burman et al. 2018). Moreover, it is becoming evident that breeders need to consider traits beyond yields in their breeding programs by incorporating end-user needs such as grain quality, shape, size, texture, fragrance and specific cooking quality traits (Custodio et al. 2016; Bairagi et al. 2020; Britwum et al. 2020). For example in Kenya, as in other east African countries, consumers prefer aromatic long grain rice, due to spillover of preferences from Asian imports (Kilimo Trust: Expanding Rice Markets In The East African Community,In., 2018. 2018).
Men and women market-oriented farmers prefer same rice traits
Our study finding on the similar preference for high-yielding and high marketability traits, for rice varieties meant for both home consumption and for sale among both men and women farmers, is consistent with those of previous studies. In maize systems in Zimbabwe, sex-disaggregated multiple innovative approaches were utilized, including identification of farmer preferences through variety trait preference ranking, revealing that the same four varieties were preferred by both genders, and for the same reasons (Setimela et al. 2017). In cassava systems in Nigeria, variety ranking by both men and women farmers was the same (Teeken et al. 2018). Intra-household surveys conducted among rice farmers in the Philippines revealed that wives’ rice varietal preferences matched their husbands’ preferences due to the wives’ substantial involvement in post-harvest activities, despite the fact that husbands largely dominated decision making on varietal adoption (Maligalig et al. 2021). This could imply that some traits have the same level of importance across the gender divide, such as high yields and marketability.
Preferences of men and women rice farmers is also dependent on their predominant production orientation. Farmers are likely to have a diversity of prioritized rice trait preferences, starting with razor-sharp focus on economic traits for commercial-oriented producers, to a mix of agro-economic traits for producers-cum-consumers and an even broader set of agro-socio-economic selection criteria among risk-averse subsistence producers. The rice farmers in our study are commercial-oriented (rather than subsistence-oriented). When rice production is commercial, these market-oriented producers’ preferences and choices are more aligned regardless of their gender, as they are more influenced by preferences of the end-users, who are consumers. As most farmer production goals are also profit-oriented, farmers consider attributes that interest consumers in their production decision-making process (Asante et al. 2013). In western Indo-Gangetic plains of India, a study among 69 commercial-oriented farmers in four peri-urban New Delhi villages was conducted to understand their rice preferences. Overall, basmati rice varieties were preferred in comparison to non-basmati varieties, where acceptance of a basmati rice variety was dependent on market demand and seed availability for adoption (as observed for Pusa Basmati 1 and Pusa Basmati 1509) (Sharma et al. 2017). In eastern India, FGDs among 70 rice farmers and qualitative interviews with other value chain actors showed that among the main preferred traits were high yields and profitability as reflected by price and market demand (Custodio et al. 2016). These findings corroborate with our study suggesting that commercial-oriented farmers may be most concerned with economically-driven rice traits.
Another aspect could be that the preferences of men and women farmers may be more similar when contrasted with those of farmers vis-à-vis other stakeholders, especially researchers. Combined results of multi-year evaluations of different rice varieties during different seasons by rice farmers in coastal Indian Sundarbans region, most of whom were producers-cum-consumers, showed similarities in both men and women farmers’ preferences in most of the trials, suggesting that both genders had similar criteria for selection of rice varieties, while farmers’ preferences were different from those of researchers (Burman et al. 2018).
The incorporation of qualitative farmer data obtained from FGDs and in-depth interviews to complement breeder-related yield trial and sensory evaluation results was useful in three ways. Firstly, it deepened the understanding of a coherent mosaic of diverse perspectives from both men and women farmers. Secondly, both separate men and women farmers supported each other in elaborating each other’s perspectives where either gender provided explanations for trait preferences raised by the other gender. Thus, the use of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies generated more balanced views from both men and women farmers, as opposed to the sole use of either yield trial data or FGDs and in-depth interviews. Lastly, incorporation of more socially inclusive ways to collect data enables all voices to be heard so as to facilitate the co-creation of solutions that enable communities to move forward together. After all, rice is one of the major crops that has the potential to unite cultures (Burman et al. 2018). It is produced and consumed by both men and women from all walks of life where each gender has different roles and responsibilities (Okam et al. 2016). While documentation of both men and women farmers’ perspectives in variety choices is needed, this is still insufficient for widespread varietal adoption. Among other systemic challenges, wider adoption of improved varieties remains a bottleneck due to absence of a ready market for farmers’ produce (Kilimo Trust: Expanding Rice Markets In The East African Community,In., 2018. 2018).
Marketability is a key attribute for farmer uptake of new varieties
Despite the introduction of Komboka, Kenyan Mwea farmers’ hesitancy in widely adopting this rice variety due to uncertainty of its marketability suggests that there is a need for breeders to consider market-oriented farmers’ concerns when selecting new varieties, to accelerate new rice varietal and seed replacement efforts. Enhancing adoption, appropriate communication and awareness is key.To support this, field days continue to be conducted with an aim of promoting the variety and linking up the farmers to potential buyers such as the National Cereal Board (NCPB) and Mwea Rice Growers Multipurpose (MRGM) (Komboka rice variety takes spotlight in field day 2020). Also, through conducting on-farm trials, lead farmers have been selected and have helped in eliciting more insights to support the adoption of the variety. This is for example through social learning that makes it easier for other farmers to extrapolate the likely outcomes of the farm demonstrations to their own situations. These various approaches have established a significant increase in uptake as substantiated by the rising demand for the Komboka variety seed for planting from the KALRO seed unit (Government Launches High Producing Rice Variety ). This is a good indication that the prior apprehension about the marketability is gradually fading away.
Neglecting market signals when developing new varieties can have dire consequences. In Mali, although many rice varieties had been developed, few had been adopted because researchers did not take into account farmers’ preferences and perceptions on the varieties during the development process (Efisue et al. 2008). In Nepal, despite the release of new rice varieties, the majority of the farmers continued to cultivate old rice varieties, sometimes with an average age of 20 years post-variety release (Witcombe et al. 2017). Through other similar illustrations, more breeders have seen the importance of incorporating users’ feedback, especially when some high-yielding varieties receive low ranking during farmers’ evaluations (Worku et al. 2020). In our study, while Komboka received high scores, there was still hesitancy in its widespread cultivation due to uncertainty on its marketability upon harvest. Farmers in Mwea (Stephen Oduor: Kenya 2021) as well as Ahero (Joe 2019) have struggled with finding market for their surplus rice produce on several occasions.
Lack of market for improved rice varieties in Kenya is partly attributed to the low competitiveness and low productivity of domestic rice, due to cheap rice imports and high production costs of locally produced rice (Trust 2017). The influx of cheap imported rice from Asian countries as well as neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania into the country, which is sold at low prices (at around USD 0.3 per kg), knocks off demand for local rice varieties produced by farmers (sold at around USD 0.6 per Kg) (Mwangi 2020). Exacerbating the problem is the illegal practice of blending these cheaper imports with Mwea’s pure aromatic basmati rice which is thereafter traded as (mixed) pishori variety at a much lower price than the original ‘pure pishori’ that Mwea is renowned for (Andae 2021). Nonetheless, if measures such as government policy restrictions on imports are put in place and implemented consistently (Atera et al. 2018), there still remains a significant market opportunity for improved new varieties that are attractive to both farmers and consumers such as Komboka to meet this increasing domestic rice demand. Another challenge faced by Kenyan rice farmers is the high cost of rice production, which if reduced can enhance local farmers’ competitiveness with imported rice. For example, the National Irrigation Board manages the country’s irrigation infrastructure system, which is mobilized by expensive diesel fuel (not gravity) thus necessitating farmers to pay higher costs for irrigating their farms. While plans have been underway to replace this expensive diesel system in various irrigation systems (Stephen Oduor: Kenya 2021; Alushula 2017; Gravity and to replace generators in Sh7.5bn Tana River irrigation project. 2021), it has unfortunately not been actualized as yet (Scheme and Inspection, 2020). While the Mwea irrigation scheme is deemed reasonably competitive and a model success case study (State declares Mwea Irrigation Scheme a success story 2021), this upper hand against imports could be further accentuated by introducing subsidies on some of the tradable inputs such as chemical fertilizers and herbicides so as to further cushion farmers and stabilize the market prices (Mugane 2010). Currently, the high un-competitiveness on price and quality of locally produced rice compared to that of imported rice coupled with the low production capacity is a handicap not only in Kenya but also in the wider East African Community region (Trust 2017), which needs a value chain approach to ameliorate the situation.