Hope alive as dew harvesting springs life into dry farms

Peter Ekatorot, a Hydrology and Water Resource Management student at South Eastern Kenya University, in Kitui County on January 10, 2019. [Photo, Philip Muasya]

In Kathongo village, Mbooni West, one of the driest parts of Makueni County, Kaloki Mutwota walks around his farm inspecting healthy pawpaws which have defied the local harsh weather to flourish.

His face lights up as he explains that in about a month, his plants will start fruiting, having survived drought in the area.

For the farmer, however, this was not possible a few years ago when most of his crops would dry up as soon as they sprouted due to erratic rains.

But thanks to dew harvesting technology, a research initiative of the South Eastern Kenya University (Seku) located at Kwa Vonza in Kitui County, Mutwota can now rest assured of crop maturity and bumper harvests.

The farmer was introduced to the technology of harvesting dew to grow crops by Peter Etukutan Ekatorot, a hydrology and water resource management student who recently completed his four year course at the university.

The student and others under the supervision of Dr Moses Mwangi who teaches in the department of Hydrology and Aquatic Science, have for one and a half years been researching on how to tap dew from the atmosphere and condense it for use in growing crops.

The technology uses Groasis water boxes, specially designed to tap and condense dew into water which is then stored in the box reservoir to water crops and plants.

Little but critical

“The water box made of plastic is placed around the intended crop or plant directly above the roots. The top cover has gutter like rows which collect dew and directs the condensed water inside the box for storage,” Ekatorot explains.

The water box collects 50ml of water in 8 hours. Though it may look little, the researcher says this is sufficient for a plant per day. And in an arid area, this is gold. To feed the crop or plant, the water box has a wick, like that of a lantern lamp attached to it and stretching to the roots of the plant.

“The wick then transmits the water from the box to the plant through constant drops, just like it would happen with drip irrigation,” he says.

Through this, Ekatorot says evaporation is minimal and thus the plant is assured of maximum water supply since it does not compete with weeds for the same. As such, the plant has higher chances of survival even in harsh weather, says the student. The technology has been a game changer for Mutwota who plans to roll it over his quarter acre farm where he also intends to grow cabbages and mango trees. When we visited his farm, we found him removing the boxes for re-use elsewhere.

“With the help of the student, I planted 50 pawpaw plants in July when it was very dry. I thought it was a joke but I decided to give it a try. I have never watered them but now look at them, none dried up. It is like a miracle,” he says.

He hailed the Groasis box as a simple technology that has no maintenance cost and urged other farmers in arid and semi-arid areas to embrace it.

Mr Ekatorot says once the farmer notices the plant is big enough and can now survive on its own, they are advised to remove the water boxes and re-use them elsewhere.

No maintenance cost

“The technology is effective and can easily improve food security in arid and semi arid areas and even among pastoralist communities in Turkana where the locals can change from pure pastoralists to agro-pastoralists,” says Ekatorot, who is waiting to graduate.

Dr Mwangi, the lecturer, says the idea behind dew harvesting is to avoid the trial and error reliance on rain fed agriculture which has proven unreliable in the wake of climate change.

He explains that there is always water in the sky and which falls down in form of dew at night and which can be harvested either to grow crops or for household use.

“Even in the driest of times, there is always water in the atmosphere which can be harvested. The idea here is to train farmers how to actually harvest the water in the skies to grow food crops, you don’t need to wait for the rains or exploit the underground aquifers. Collecting dew to grow crops would allow all year round crop harvesting and food security,” Dr Mwangi says.

Farmers in Makueni, Kajiado and Turkana counties were involved in early stages of the technology. “We are working closely with the farmers to own the technology and when they see the first results, they are motivated, so the absorption of the technology is very fast,” he says, noting that with the water boxes, a farmer does not need a large piece of land.

Dr Mwangi says the boxes are ideal in all types of soils and even in rocky areas. He says the university is training farmers on how to improvise the water boxes using locally available materials.

Mid this year, the university plans a mass roll out of the project dubbed ‘A sustainable approach to livelihood improvement through innovative agricultural practices in Kenya’, aimed at addressing food insecurity.