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Environmental change and maize innovation in Kenya: exploring pathways in and out of maize

Maize is a socially, politically and economically staple crop in Kenya. This paper summarises the findings of the STEPS Environmental Change and Maize Innovation in Kenya project, which utilised maize as a window through which to explore differential responses to climate change. The aim of the project was to better understand the different ways that various actors frame resilience and how these assumptions influence agendas and policies.

The paper draws heavily on farmers experience in Sakai, particularly their response to environmental, market and land use changes. Rather than mapping maize as a single system, group exercises and interviews formed the basis of understanding the crop as having multiple roles in diverse systems. The appearance of a formal (public and private institutions) and informal (local seed selectors) maize system is at the forefront, with discussion on the socio-economic status of the defined system. The main issue at play is the dynamic between the conflicting duel nature of growing maize. While it would be best for farmers to diversify and produce higher value goods more suitable to the environment, growing maize represents insurance against unpredictable political, climatic and economic conditions that could severely affect supplies and price. This can lead to cycles of vulnerability and crisis forcing farmers to expending energy and resources on growing maize.

The paper explores a new generation of initiatives and asks whether they will open up discussion on potential alternatives or reinforce pre-existing paths leading to maize dependency. Solutions can be divided into two complementary categories: genetics-based resilience and a private sector technology supply line delivering inputs and advice to poor farmers (now cast as consumers). The paper concludes that as long as uncertainties remain regarding market stability and access to maize for personal consumption, farmers are unlikely to make the transition to different crops. What is needed is a re-evaluation of the agro-dealer model to ensure that commercially unattractive crops are accessible to farmers as part of a more diverse range of options. It is also crucial to keep in mind the intertwined nature of the numerous maize systems when implementing policy, lest the results actually undermine traditional, diversified risk mitigation strategies.