New sorghum beer boon for farmers and industry

Sorghum beer

Sorghum is wealth, was the message to farmers during the launch of a research paper on the crop, that shows how the previously ignored crop is now changing the fortunes of thousands of Kenyan farmers.

Compiled by Egerton University’s research centre, Tegemeo Institute, and sponsored by Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL), the study found that the demand for sorghum is on the rise.

The Principal Secretary for Agriculture Research and Irrigation, Mr Fred Segor, welcomed the paper as an addition to the body of research, currently available to the public.

“This paper is important to the government, KBL and farmers, as it provides an avenue for the various stakeholders to explore other opportunities in the industry”, he said.

The blending of flour using sorghum, millet and cassava to add nutrition and decrease dependence on maize was one initiative, the PS explained, bound to increase the uptake of sorghum.

“Through the blending of flour initiative, the government aims to increase the volume to five percent in 2018/2019, 15 percent in 2019/2020 and 20 percent in 2020/2021,’’ he added

Sorghum, the country’s fourth most important crop after maize, wheat and rice, has for a long time been despised as a low-yielding subsistence crop, rather than as a potential cash crop.

Currently, the country imports more than a third of its total consumption and, the rising demand of the crop from the blenders, and more recently, it being sought by Kenya Breweries Limited for making malt, is good news for the farmers in western Kenya.

Previously, the use of sorghum for industrial processing was low, but the coming of sorghum beer, has resulted in a 25 percent increase in the past five years.

Complementing the government’s efforts to address the scourge of illicit beer, KBL has not only come up with an affordable lager, but has empowered thousands of farmers in the arid and semi-arid areas, where the crop thrives, to grow it.

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Though initially reluctant, farmers who bit the bullet, have no regrets as they are smiling all the way to the bank, their livelihoods having been greatly improved.

KBL Managing director Jane Karuku said during the launch that her company was keen to boost sorghum production.

The company’s new plant in Kisumu is set to be officially opened soon, and will increase the number of contracted farmers by 17,000, creating 100,000 jobs.

“Our subsidiary, East Africa Maltings Limited (EAML), sources 80 per cent of its raw materials locally. But we aim to get 100 percent of the raw materials locally by the year 2020,” she said

KBL has contracted farmers to supply the raw material for beer production and hopes to increase farmers’ yields by 500 percent and profits by 200 percent.

Meant for the popular low-cost beer Senator lager, proper cost management by farmers has ensured that KBL gets high quality sorghum, and the farmers, some good returns.

“Currently, we buy about 60,000 metric tonnes of sorghum a year, paying more than Ksh1.1 billion for the farmers’ produce”, she added

The company provides hybrid seed, inputs and free extension services, which has been a boost to the contracted farmers.

The EAML general manager, Mr Lawrence Maina, said that sorghum could give the farmers handsome returns if well-managed.

“Convincing farmers to grow sorghum was an uphill task as the response was lukewarm,” he told the Smart Farmer in an interview.

“Commercial farming heavily depends on the ability of producers to get decent returns on their investment. The cost of production must, therefore, be low enough to guarantee profits at market prices. To this effect, the decisions a farmer makes are important in determining profitability,” he added

According to a 2015 study, national sorghum production stood at 1.9 million bags, though the country has 240,000 small-scale farmers, who have an average of one to 1.5 acres. Of this, only a few adhere to mono-cropping, which is highly recommended for sorghum, adversely affecting the amount and quality of produce.

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About 15 percent of the sorghum produce is lost in the field and during storage, with attacks from the Quelea birds, forcing some farmers to wake up as early as 4.30am to scare them away.

Despite the challenges, the general outlook is positive and increased supply of sorghum will create many opportunities for others across the value chain.

Breeders and seed companies will also have an opportunity to produce better-yielding varieties for greater uptake, while demand for extension services will increase as demand for the crop grows.

KBL has, so far, contracted 45,000 farmers to plant sorghum, and judging by their response, the partnership is a win-win situation for both.

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