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They ‘struck’ the sand and out came water; how Machakos farmers got constant supply of fresh food

By Gardy chacha | February 7th 2015
Alice inspects a banana tree growing next to her group's sand dam

MACHAKOS: To get to Alice Wambua’s homestead, you have to navigate carefully across hills and valleys. You come across dried river beds and fallow lands. Occasionally, we come across forgotten maize farms.

They are visibly in despicable states. All that is visible are stunted stems – the result of a scorching sun in an unforgiving environment.

In total, we come across three seasonal rivers; with nothing but sand and fine clay, left behind as water evaporated into the sky. It is quite easy to ask: “How do people survive here?”

But then our path opens into a beautiful green farm. In the middle of the dryness, paw paws flourish; sukuma wiki stand lushly erect; onion bulbs bulge under the soil; maize survives the dryness, and tomatoes ripen in a nice round juicy shape.

The farm has life where millions of crops have shriveled for lack of water. It is a miracle; a miracle called sand dam. It is from this farm, owned collectively by 31 household in the sparsely populated area, that families get their food from.

“Where is the water used for irrigation?” I ask Alice, being the one responsible for agricultural practices at the farm.

“We pump the water from a sand dam built at a nearby river,” she says.

Don’t get it twisted; the river has no water. It is all bare sand. However, at the point a barrier has been erected, sand has built up and formed a mighty reservoir of water. The purpose is to raise the water table close to the ground.

Along the river bank, a water pump connected to a ground source is visible. Alice says the water filtrates through the sand and is pumped into the farm. Armed with a greenhouse donated by her county government, Alice and her colleagues produce enough tomatoes both for home use and for sale.

“Our first harvest – which wasn’t very good owing to pest – gave us Sh20,000. We have reinvested that money back into the farm to arrest pest and grow better seeds for better production in the next season.”

Five kilometers away from the group’s haven of plenty, we meet Thomas Ndambuki, a farmer who lives not far from the river (known as Mwelu to residents).

The same technology has been replicated here. His farmhand, Muthii Komo, attends to rows of leafy kales. He practices mixed farming, with mangoes, paw paws, tomatoes and kales in a one-acre plot of land.

So far, the kale is earning him “good money”. Every week he harvests twice, earning Sh2,000 with each harvest.

“We use a water pump to get the water to the farm, which has to be irrigated at least twice per week for good results. With the sand dam, supply of water is constant. Consistent agriculture is not possible in this part of the world if the farmer solely depends on rain,” says Muthii.

The plight of resident of Kitonyoni in Makueni, came to fore through Utooni Development, an NGO that specialises in handling water problems in arid and semi-arid places. Funds used to build the two sand dams were provided by APA/Apollo Insurance.

According to Kevin Munene, the CEO of Utooni, the age-old technology of boreholes is no longer viable in the area.

“Boreholes are hard to maintain. They easily break down and the cost of repair is not within normal ‘costs’ for residents of these places. With sand dams, whenever there is rain, run-off water safely percolates into the sand,” says Kevin

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