“I used to plant ten seeds in a hole. Now I plant two because of a higher germination rate. It used to grow in eight to ten months. Now it takes five. I used to harvest two hundred kilos per acre. Now I harvest a tonne.”

Joseph Nyaga’s accounts of before and after adopting Bt cotton are an accurate depiction of a Saul to Paul moment, a life-changing revelation that has him confessing he erred in taking too long to ditch the conventional seed for the improved one.

When he sits to speak to us during the Friday March 15 stakeholders’ meeting on agricultural biotechnology organized by OFAB Kenya, through ISAAA AfriCenter, and held in Embu, he is beaming, like many other farmers with him.

He is one of hundreds of farmers in Embu and Kirinyaga who have rekindled their love with cotton. The four years he has been with the Bt cotton are the finest in his farming career by a distant mile, he confesses; for seventeen years before 2020, he cultivated conventional cotton and did not reap anything of note.

It did not help that cotton farming was gradually losing its lucrativeness.

“In the 90s, the once robust textile industry started going down, and ginning facilities disappeared. Right now, we have only six remaining, with only five of them operational, and our farmers in this region have to go to Kitui, Mwingi, or Meru for ginning,” says Dr Denis Muchangi, a lecturer at Kirinyaga University.

As stars kept aligning for Nyaga and other farmers, another stroke of good fortune hit them.

Researchers from Kirinyaga University, after years of looking for a way to increase cotton farmers’ profits, fabricated a portable ginning machine, which is now being piloted in Embu and Kirinyaga counties.

Four of such machines are now with the farmers.

To the farmers, the machine is a godsend. Ginners used to buy their cotton balls at Sh50 a kilo for grade A and Sh25 for grade B. Tongue-in-cheek, some farmers claim that the buyers came determined to categorize as much cotton as possible grade B.

The new machine is able to do the ginning for the farmers, and they can then sell their lint to textile factories at between Sh180 and Sh200, potentially up to eight times more for what would have been labeled grade B.

The farmers also retain the seed, which they sell for Sh40 a kilo. The university is coming up with a machine to help the farmers extract oil from the seeds, with additional training to come on the processing of seed cake for animal feeds.

“The benefits are so, so many I cannot exhaust them,” Nyaga says during the interview. “And if I am to compare with the conventional crop, well, there is very much to talk about. The difference is staggering.”

Kenyan ginners continue to complain of a shortage in raw material, as do textile factories, with many farmers either having abandoned cotton farming due to poor prices or declining produce.

But those who swiftly jumped onto Bt cotton farming at the onset of its commercialisation have been reaping the benefits, and are now racing to increase production to satisfy the industry’s demand and eliminate ginneries’ idle capacity.

Successful adoption of agricultural biotechnology will be a key factor in unlocking Kenya’s full agricultural potential, necessary in the face of climate change, rapidly increasing population, and shrinking arable lands.

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation’s (KALRO) Biotechnology Institute Director Dr. Martin Mwirigi appeals to the private sector, which benefits from the proliferation and uptake of biotech, to contribute actively to its development.

“We cannot sit back and wait to just be beneficiaries, and to make profits out of a science whose growth we do not want to support. Most of the research and uptake is funded by foreign investors, and our local private sector needs to do better to support the science,” he says.

ISAAA AfriCenter Director Dr. Margaret Karembu says that Kenya, despite continuously creating capacity in agricultural biotechnology in institutions of higher learning, is losing to countries with better policies that favour biotechnology adoption, with many such experts leaving the country.

In addition to that, local research continues to face hurdles it should easily overcome, she says.

She regrets some challenges, such as a lingering situation where students lack reagents for research due to expensive imports and difficult logistics, while some (of these reagents) could be manufactured locally.

National Biosafety Authority CEO Dr. Roy Mugiira says that Kenya has a strong regulatory framework, and that the regulator will endeavour to enable a robust biotechnological space, with timely and evidence-based decisions at every stage of the research, development and commercialisation pipeline.