Madina Muhammed at her farm in Rapsu, Isiolo. [Kennedy Gachuhi, Standard]

The Borana people of Isiolo County are well known for pastoralism as their main economic activity, which doubles as a cultural practice. So embedded into their culture is livestock keeping that community members say farming is associated with poverty while livestock is considered an indication of wealth. However, a group of them has beaten the odds to engage in farming, citing climate change and the need for economic empowerment. In 1971, the National Irrigation Board (NIB) constructed the main canal at Rapsu in Kinna, the county’s largest agro-pastoral zone.

Farming proved difficult due to, among other things, insecurity which led to displacement and over-reliance on livestock keeping at the expense of farming. Gradually though, communities have come to appreciate agriculture. “Climate change often leads to the loss of livestock, unlike soil which remains intact,” says Ms Madina Mohammed, a farmer.

As a community health promoter, Ms Mohammed, 30, appreciates the importance of diversification of both diets and sources of income. Before she started farming, her children would almost exclusively feed on ugali (maize meal) and milk. However, her family would often lack enough milk as production went down significantly, especially when livestock died during dry seasons. 

“I decided to engage in farming as a way of generating income and diversifying food sources instead of solely depending on my husband,” says the mother of four. She is a mixed farmer growing pawpaws, bananas, cassava, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, among other food crops. While a large percentage of her produce is consumed at home, Ms. Mohammed says she sells the surplus and saves most of the income. 

Madina Muhammed. [Kennedy Gachuhi, Standard]

From her maiden pawpaw harvest, Ms Mohammed earned Sh6,000 which she has saved in a bank. “I never had a bank account, but farming has necessitated the same,” she says Ms. Mohammed, adding, “Women should engage in agriculture as opposed to solely depending on their husbands.”

Across her farm, 31-year-old Mahad Guyo has grown an acre of onions and is hoping for a bumper harvest especially at a time when the produce is fetching a fortune in the market.

Mr Guyo depended on his parents until five years ago when he decided to start farming with the aim of starting and providing for his own family. He hopes to harvest 10 tonnes of onion from a one-acre piece of land and sell at the current market price of Sh200 per kilogramme.

“I also grow tomatoes and vegetables such as collard green and spinach,” says Mr. Guyo, adding, “I hope to form a youth group one day, through which young people can inspire each other and venture into joint farming as opposed to the white-collar-job mentality.” The two are part of 186 farmers under Rapsu irrigation scheme who benefited from the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) with support from the European Union (EU) in lining feeder canals at the irrigation scheme. Initially, farmers were using six kilometres of open furrows partitioned into seven blocks.

“The Authority supported the first and second phases covering 2.8km through the World Food Programme-funded Food for Assets project in 2018 and 2020. The third and fourth phases covering 3.04 Kms were implemented with the financial support of the EU during the 2022/2023 financial year,” says Mary Wangui, NDMA Isiolo Assistant Director for Drought Resilience.

Before the support by NDMA, she adds, farmers had dug furrows to their farms. The system was highly inefficient as it took a whole day to water one block and could not sustain the entire land under irrigation. Previously, seepage resulted in 30 per cent - 50 per cent loss of irrigation water from canals. The concrete-lined feeder canals prevent weed growth and waterlogging around low-lying areas of the canal.

“It would take us five hours to irrigate one acre, but since the lining of canals, it takes just one hour leaving farmers with more time to attend to other chores,” says Mr. Ali, who doubles up as the chairman, Rapsu Farmers’ Cooperative Society. Inspired by the improved irrigation system, more people are now engaged in farming leading to increased production. However, this has attracted challenges such as post-harvest losses especially for highly perishable produce. To address the challenges, farmers formed a cooperative society. This way, they can build synergies in addressing challenges by seeking joint markets, value addition, and aggregation among others.

Mr. Ali, however, says the cooperative society leadership needs management training. Through a project implemented by a consortium of partners and funded by the EU, Ms. Wangui noted, Rapsu irrigation scheme was among the areas supported on fodder production in 2019-2023. The project provided seeds and supported the construction of a hay shed. At the height of drought in 2022, the scheme sold over 600 bales of hay at a total of Sh600,000. Already, they have about 1,000 bales in the store, spared for sale when demand is high.