Sesame – locally known as simsim, is popular amongst African farmers and is commonly referred to as the ‘survivor’ plant – it can resist drought where other crops fail and it doesn’t require much fertiliser making it less expensive to cultivate. It is this remarkable drought resistance, requiring 66 percent less water than grain sorghum and an impressive 75 percent less water than corn to cultivate, that makes it noteworthy of its tag as the ‘survivor plant’.

Its hardiness is further demonstrated in instances where researchers have found that sesame cultivation reduces nematode populations within the soil environment. This potential pest resistance property is a further boost in lowering production costs, and an attraction for farmers in low-income countries in Africa.

Growth and agronomic characteristics of Sesame (simsim) farming in Kenya

Sesame (Sesamumindicum) is a broadleaf crop that belongs to the Pedaliaceae plant family which has bell-shaped flowers and opposite leaves. It is an erect annual plant that can reach between 4 -7 feet in height at maturity. On average, sesame varieties grown in Kenya commercially require 90 to 110 days from planting to reach physiological maturity.

Sesame is adapted to fertile, well-drained soils but is not salt tolerant and medium textured soils are most favourable. Sesame prefers neutral to slightly alkaline pH, with moderate fertility and will not thrive properly in heavy clay soils or irrigation water containing high concentrations of salt. Cultivation requires a warm, moist, weed-free seedbed, with raised beds being the most preferred to allow for good soil moisture around its extensive root system while providing a method of keeping the moisture off the stems. Generally, the seedbed preparation is similar to that of cotton plantations as they tend to have similar moisture requirements.

Planting is the most critical aspect of growing sesame. And farmers will need to examine poorly established stands and replant them. The application of a balanced commercial fertiliser at planting time is advisable and only necessary on soils of low to moderate fertility for satisfactory production or stands. At maturity, the sesame seeds need to be harvested as dry as possible and stored at 6% moisture or less, which improves their postharvest conditions, as the small seeds are become compacted, limiting the flow of air around them and could become rancid as a result.

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Versatility and utility

Sesame seeds are very versatile in their utility and contain 50-55 percent oil and 25 percent protein. Sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any seed, with a rich, nutty flavour, it is a common ingredient in cuisines across the world. The seeds are used in baking, to top bread, buns and bagels, in crackers and in cakes. The ground seeds are used in East African cuisine in soups, fish dishes and used as condiments. The oils are also used in salad dressings and cooking oils, as well as making some margarines.

Sesame oil keeps well and resists rancidity even in many parts of the world where there is inadequate refrigeration, due to the presence of an antioxidant, ‘sesamol’. Industrial uses of sesame oil include its utility in manufacturing paints, soaps, cosmetics, perfumes, bath oils, insecticides and pharmaceuticals (as a vehicle for drug delivery). Furthermore, sesame seed oil is being investigated as a cell-growth regulator that slows down cell growth and replication.


Summary of the Key production facts

Sesame seed farming in Kenya has the potential to grow. This growth can be seen both in the number of smallholder and commercial farmers engaging in it across a good number of countries as well as the net volumes of the viable crop that is harvested and processed. Africa has an enormous advantage over its main Asian competitors because of the availability of arable land and the presence of more affordable labour. These two variables, in conjunction with the sesame plant’s naturally robust and hardy physiology and remarkable versatility,make it truly a survivor plant for agriculture on the continent.

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It does, however, call for a concerted approach to harness this potential and address the critical need for an improved yield.


Sesame farming in suitable conditions bring numerous benefits:

    • Sesame is a versatile crop with unique attributes to fit almost any cropping system
    • It achieves more profit when grown with limited resources and offers more return for less cost (less risk) than any other crop
    • It doesn’t require additional farming equipment than that used for cereal farming
    • It has excellent disease and insect tolerance
    • Sesame in a crop rotation reduces nematodes in the soil
    • Deep taproot may reach and utilize nutrients and moisture below the root zones of other crops
    • Sesame adds beneficial residue within the whole soil profile, resulting in improved tillage and topsoil properties
    • Excellent drought and heat tolerance – it thrives where other crops fail.

As a drought and heat tolerant crop, sesame has the ability to retain a relatively higher level of hydration under conditions of soil or/and atmospheric water stress. Factors enabling that are:

    • Rapid phenological crop development
    • Vigorous, deep, extensive and well branched fibrous root system
    • Narrowed hairy leaves with an ability to roll themselves, close stomata and secrete a waxy substance on the surface to reduce transpiration
    • Osmotic adjustment to lower the osmotic potential
    • High root/shoot ratio.
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