Esther Nasisia walks along the dusty streets of Kimana, the once sleepy outpost on the foothills of Mt Kilimanjaro with an optimistic gait. She moved here with her family in 1973 as a ten-year-old girl. Coming from the Maasai community, looking after livestock was her family’s sole occupation.
The Maasai community is known the world over, for among other things, their love of cattle. For centuries, they have lived like nomads, moving livestock from place to place in search of greener pastures.
In recent times however, these pastures have turned from green to brown, and in some places, disappeared completely. In severe drought, similar to the one ravaging the country at the moment, Nasisia witnessed as the family’s fortunes dwindled.
The vanishing pastures have prompted a wave of change in Maasailand. For years, the Maasai avoided the planting of crops in favour of animal husbandry. Today, however, members of the community are tending to thriving farmlands in lands around Mt Kilimanjaro.
Nasisia is one of the farmers who are determined to change the community’s famed lifestyle by using modern methods of agriculture to feed not only her three children and five grandchildren but also sell to the many hospitality outlets dotting the Amboseli conservation area.
On a hot Wednesday morning, we meet up with Nasisia on the outskirts of Kimana Township. Our mission is to see what she terms as a well tended, four-acre piece of land that she has farmed for the last two years. “It is full of food,” she tells us as our driver tries to skirt around the thorny acacia bushes.
The dust along the route to the farm is unbearable. At some point I even doubt if the farm exists in the first place. But the apprehensions evaporate when I spot an elevated water tank, an indication of human activity.
“Kwa nini umeshangaa? Haukuamini kuna shamba?”(Why are you surprised? You didn’t believe me, did you?) asks Nasisia as the scattered bushes open up to a view of her piece of land. “This is the future of our community,” she says.
There is a healthy crop of capsicum and tomatoes. A nearby seedbed contains onions that she intends to transplant to an already prepared section of the land. However, what strikes one is the length these budding farmers are willing to go in their search for good harvest.
Being a semi-arid area, rain fed agriculture is a fallacy. Boreholes are the in thing here, as the water table is quite high owing to the ever melting glaciers of Mt Kilimanjaro. Using the drip irrigation method, thin, black water pipes crisscross the farm, transporting the vital liquid from the reservoir tank to the farm.
“Previously, we had the farms but no water. Now we have both. Drip irrigation ensures that no amount of water is wasted as every drop goes directly to the plant. There is no reason why Maasailand cannot feed itself,” says Nasisia.
Revenues from her first harvest amounted to Sh700,000. After deducting all expenses, Nasisia was left with close to Sh500,000. So immersed is she in farming that she has leased an adjacent two-acre piece of land.
According to her, the new farming wave was in part prompted by the success of immigrant communities who bought land mainly for agricultural purposes.
“Many people from all over the country have bought land here for agricultural purposes while we still clung on to livestock that we could hardly feed. They have been smiling all the way to the bank as they fed much of Nairobi with produce from our land. Why can’t we do the same?” says Nasisia.
Martin ole Kapari, another farmer who also helps local farmers sell their produce, says this alternative form of land use in Masailand is in line with the country’s development agenda where counties utilise resources in their backyard to sustain themselves.
According to Kapari, reducing livestock in favour of farming is another way of sustaining the wildlife resources in the area. Wild animals, he says, compete for pasture with domestic animals aggravating conflicts between the two groups. He adds that farming will in no way drive away wild animals as some may have suggested.
“Our farms are located away from the main migratory corridors that are used by wild animals to get in and out of Amboseli National Park. In any case, reducing the number of our cows means there will be less competition for pasture grounds,” he says.
Farmers here have taken advantage of the tourist lodges strewn around the region as possible markets for their farm produce.
One of these is Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge where almost all the fresh produce is sourced from the farmers in Kimana.
According to Kathurima Mburugu, the lodge manager, farmers like Nasisia are indirectly contributing to tourism in the area.
“Both agriculture and wildlife are needed. Think about it this way: The lodge relies on visitors who come here to view our wildlife. these visitors need food that the local farmers are currently supplying. So the more visitors we have in the lodge, the more we will buy from the farmers. It is a large chain,” he says.
Mburugu says buying food from local farmers is one way of growing sustainable tourism practices since less energy will be used to source these products from distant locations including Nairobi.
“The beauty is that you can even call the farmers on short notice to bring you the products urgently needed. Apart from saving on fuel, we can always monitor how such food is produced by ensuring that farming practices do not harm the environment,” he says.
But while farmers here have found ways of harnessing underground water for irrigation, they still face the challenge of stray wildlife that sometimes finds its way into the shambas.
Still, farmers like Nasisia hope to reap big from their newfound vocation.