This opinion piece first appeared in Kenya’s Business Daily Newspaper on May 1st. As this week’s Nairobi Burger Festival draws to a close, we revisit the underlying cause of a spike in milk prices and draw attention to an issue which could bring us fewer burgers to bite into in future.

By Dr. An Notenbaert: Tropical Forages Coordinator, Africa

With the onset of the rains, livestock farmers around Kenya might breathe a sigh of relief. But they have come too late for the thousands of cattle that have already died, hit by the drought that led President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare a national disaster in February this year.

Fresh milk prices have been ramped up, as a result of drought halving milk output. Areas of Kenya where milk production is usually high have been hit, especially the Highland areas of the central districts and Rift Valley.

More Turkana pastoralists have migrated to Uganda, in search of water and livestock feed, bringing the number of those who have crossed the border to around 60,000 this season.

Yet this phenomenon is one which will not be solved by rain alone. It is down to a few, fundamental challenges which go deeper than drought. Across east and southern Africa, livestock farmers routinely face the same hurdles in increasing meat and milk production: low availability of good quality livestock feed, especially during the dry season.

Our research shows that new, high-quality, drought-tolerant forage grasses could boost milk production by up to 40 percent, generating millions of dollars in economic benefits for struggling East African dairy farmers.

Some of these new varieties of a grass called Brachiaria, are high-yielding, nutritious and, because they are easier for cows to digest, animals produce far less of the greenhouse gas methane per liter of milk produced.

These benefits make it the most extensively used tropical forage in the world, with seed production already commercialized in big cattle-producing countries like Brazil. Yet Brachiaria grass originates in Africa.

So why can’t livestock farmers in Kenya find enough forages to feed their cattle – especially the high quality varieties like Brachiaria – when in Brazil the grass supports a multi-million-dollar seed industry annually?

The reason is two-fold. First, Brachiaria only produces economically viable amounts of seed for commercial production in specific climates, with a certain amount of daylight. In Africa, though a few small enterprises are trying, there is no established industry driving wide-spread Brachiaria seed availability locally.

Currently, high-quality seeds are imported from Thailand or Brazil, for example.

At the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), we have found climates similar to those where seeds thrive in Africa. That could mean business opportunities for smallholders and seed producers on the continent.

We are starting to explore the technical and economic feasibility of commercial Brachiaria production in Zambia. Locally, available seed could be more affordable for livestock farmers, especially considering that feed constitutes at least 60 percent of the costs involved in keeping livestock.

But while improved drought-resilient varieties of high-quality grasses like Brachiaria are better able to withstand drought, this ability alone will not make them abundant during dry seasons. Harvesting forages in excess during the wet season is essential, to be preserved as hay or silage for the dry periods.

And even if farmers can find – and afford – high-quality forage seeds, they still need to be convinced that they can profit from them.

Many livestock keepers do not grow enough forage feed because they want to prioritize food crops for the family. To plug the current feed gap requires an awareness raising drive among farmers.

Those that do grow feed need to be encouraged and supplied with better information about how to preserve it; produce more, higher-quality feed and make it abundant in the dry season; how to profit from it; and how to tackle major pests and diseases.

We already know that boosting dairy production can be a critical first step out of poverty. Homegrown seed production could mean potentially millions of farmers make that step.

Making seed available in Africa for Africa, would be a start – together with an awareness raising drive to convince livestock keepers to grow and preserve forages and feed while making a profit.

This will be more important than ever amid more erratic weather conditions, deepening drought and higher temperatures. Such efforts could not only avert the deaths of thousands of cattle, but also prevent millions of farmers from having their livelihoods wiped out.

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