Maize disease creating a poverty trap for farmers in Eastern Africa

Maize disease creating a poverty trap for farmers in Eastern Africa


Spreading from Kenya across the rest of East and Central Africa, the Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) is a serious risk to food security in the region. Small-scale farmers like John Ngeno (in the photo) and Bernard Kones saw their yields wither last year. Both farmers, based in Narok South in Kenya, were able to respond to the first shock but their resilience will decrease with every season the maize disease continues to affect their crops.

Located in the Rift Valley, near the border with Tanzania, Narok County is also known as Kenya’s maize and wheat belt. Small-scale farming is still the main source of livelihoods for a majority of the population, with maize as staple food. MLND hit farmers for the first time last year. With a 40% yield loss and maize prices almost doubling, the impact was significant.

“We sell half of our yields to gain extra income but the four bags we harvested last year were not even enough to feed all of us,” Bernard explains. The farmer lives with his family and siblings on 20 acres of land in Mulot, Narok South. The land, owned by his father Joseph, supports the livelihoods of five households. When MLND infected their plants, the family lost 75% of its maize harvest. Maize yields normally mount to 24 bags per ha on average. Bernard was able to provide for his family by selling their livestock. “Six of our 15 cows were sold to meet household needs and pay for school fees.”

His neighbor John, a young man who only started farming five years ago, lost his whole crop due to MLND. He managed to cushion the effect of his losses by finding a causal job. With his salary he decided to diversify his income. “For the first time I worked as a seasonal laborer at a large-scale farm where I helped with weeding. I made less money than by farming but I decided to invest it in a little shop. Now I sell sugar, flour, cooking oil, sodas, batteries, soap….” Despite the bad harvest, John has not given up farming. “I have observed and asked around how other farmers are coping and preventing the disease. I have planted my crops earlier this season.”

“The concern remains that MLND might create a poverty trap if it continuous to spread. The resilience of these vulnerable households needs to be strengthened to ensure food and nutrition security,” DRR-expert Aisja Frenken from FAO Subregional Emergency Office for East and Central Africa (FAO REOA) explains. “If the disease continuous, farmers will be forced to change their farming and eating habits.”

“This year our crops are once again infected, but not as badly,” Bernard adds. “We hope to harvest around nine bags but again that is not enough to feed everyone. We will probably sell more cattle. If the disease disappears after this year it will take us at least four seasons to recover and buy back our cows.”