Kenya

Kenyan farmers pollinate crops by hand after pesticides kill off insects

Kenyan farmer Joseph Mbithi hand pollinates his crops after overuse of pesticides killed off many of the bees and birds who do the task naturally.
Kenyan farmer Joseph Mbithi hand pollinates his crops after overuse of pesticides killed off many of the bees and birds who do the task naturally. © RFI/Victor Moturi

Farmers in eastern Kenya who have had low crop yields due to overuse of toxic pesticides are lending a helping hand to the birds and bees who regularly pollinate, by using human methods, including soft brushes, to kick-start their vegetables and fruits.

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“We are mostly affected by pesticides because they have killed most pollinators which pollinate our crops-- this has affected our food production compared to previous years,” says Joseph Mbithi, a farmer in Mbakoni village, Makueni County.

He has experienced low crop yields for two years now, and blames the absence of natural pollinators on the use of chemicals such as herbicides, insecticides, and nematicides, a type of chemical used to kill parasites on plants.

 “Pollinators such as bees and butterflies are not around due to chemicals which we spray in our farms,” Mr. Mbithi said, referring to the excessive use of toxic pesticides such as Round-up and Malathion.

Kenyan farmer Samuel Mbithi literally gives a helping hand to the few bees who come to pollinate his crops.
Kenyan farmer Samuel Mbithi literally gives a helping hand to the few bees who come to pollinate his crops. © RFI/Victor Moturi

Farmers now face the task of transferring pollen grains from male plants to female plants by hand. In this tedious process, the farmers have devised various techniques to boost food production.

Hand pollination

Mbithi uses a toothbrush, a homemade brush and a soft sponge to hand-pollinate. He said he received training on this technique from a local agricultural organization.

‘’The flowers are different in shape and are different in sizes. The male one is bigger than the female. When I am doing hand pollination, I normally pick pollen from the male first and then I apply to the female,” said Mbithi.

“If there is no pollination most of them normally dry up,” he added.

There are two types of pollination: self pollination, whereby the same pollen from the same flower goes to the stigma of the same plant to fertilize.

Then there is cross pollination, where the pollen grains are moved by an external force from one flower to the flower of the next plant, according to Dr. Faith Toroitich, an agriculture entomologist at Egerton University in the Rift Valley.

“We have plants that are wind pollinated, we have pollination through animals like birds and insects and now there is assisted pollination-- that’s where man comes in to do it manually,” Toroitich explained.

Farmers feed insects too

In Kiambu County, with the help of his trainees, farmer Samuel Nderitu pollinates approximately one hundred crops each day using locally made brushes. Nderitu, a farmer of maize, beans, sorghum, pumpkins and spinach revealed that planting different types of crops and constructing water pans near the farm encourages pollination.

He also plants yellow and viola purple flowers around the fence of his farm to attract pollinators.

‘’We encourage crop diversity by growing different types of crops that will create a habitat for the pests and insects that will do pollination work,” said Nderitu, who said it is vital to avoid using chemicals.

“We feed the insects. You can also feed the birds and you know birds also do good work in pollination,” he added.

Some farmers are opting to put beehives on their farms.

“By adding bees in supplementing with beehives, you increase productivity by over 100 percent,” said Dr. Sunday Ekesi, a Research Scientist and Director of Research at International Centre of Insect Philosophy and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi.

Last year, in a petition to encourage the return of nature’s pollinators, farmers requested a ban on the importation of harmful pesticides. For now, Kenyan farmers are prioritizing the protection of their crops and the maximization of their yields through hand pollinating fruits and vegetables.

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