When you mention the word Turkana, the region often billed as a perennially food deficient, many a times the thought that comes to mind is sad-looking families in desperate need of food aid. There is also that emaciated child with mucus dripping from the nose. Erase that. Locals in one village are so fed up with that tired narrative of misery, shame and hunger they are determined to rewrite their story into one of hope and abundance. The Smart Harvest visited such a people. The locals are determined to demystify the narrative that their land is unsuitable for arable farming
At Natirae in Turkwel Ward, about 40 kilometres East of Lodwar town in Turkana County sits a 72-acre Natiral Farm that is turning around food production in the region.The green farm that produces sorghum and maize in large scale and nutritious traditional vegetables using irrigation water from Turkwel river, is surrounded by huge tracks of fallow land dotted with thorny bushes.
Divided into portions, Natiral Farm serves residents of Natirae, who for long, were known as pastoralists and many atimes beneficiaries of food aid. Every season, they lost their herds of cattle and goats due to hunger and were frequent dependants of relief food from government and humanitarian agencies. But that is changing slowly by slowly.
Rivers of hope
In 2019, the residents' dream to be food secure started to be a reality after Panafricare Kenya, an non-profit organisation through Bayer Fund launched a programme that seeks to help more than 30 families embrace crop farming to boost their families' nutrition and food security. To roll out the project, the organisation, identified the first cohort of beneficiaries, gave them farming equipment and helped them clear the bush and prepare land. It also helped them to dig huge water canals from River Trowel to the farm and provided certified maize, sorghum and vegetables seeds for a start.
As part of the project, extension officers trained the farmers on basic crop production skills like planting, managing seed beds and irrigation. Hungry to be independent and food secure, the locals in Natirae village embraced the idea and ran with it.
One such farmer is Kuya Kyong'a Eseye, 41, who has tasted the pain of hunger. Previously he had hundreds of goats and cattle but many died due to hunger and famine. He is only left with 25 goats, which are on the verge of dying due to lack of feeds as current drought persists. Having seen how pastoralism was unsustainable, Eseye embraced the idea to be a crop farmer. He is determined to be food secure because he has to fend for his two wives, eight children and elderly parents. He also has to take care of six children belonging to his mentally ill sister.
"We are not traditionally crop farmers but for the sake of feeding our families we were ready to try anything. I have a large family to care for and sometimes, we would go hungry for days waiting for relief food. Since I started crop farming, I am able to provide at least a meal every day for my family," he says.
Another beneficiary of the project is Alice Amana, 20, a mother of four. Amana has three portions of land where she produces sorghum, maize beans managu and cow peas.
"This farm has helped me provide food for my children. Before we ventured into farming, we lost loved ones and livestock to drought. Our children are healthy now because they have food," she says.
Amana and other farmers are currently harvesting sorghum that will enable them have food during throughout the dry season. The sorghum stems are also used as livestock feeds. Another beneficiary of the project, Peter Ekutan, 68, says though crop farming is not being part of their lifestyle, it has had a positive impact on the community. He says crop farming has helped him put food on the table.
"My children go to school every day on a full stomach and they don't sleep hungry like in the past. I also sell surplus produce to meet my family's financial needs," Ekutan says.
A kilo of sorghum at the nearby shopping Centre goes for Sh200 and even higher in Lodwar Town.
He says many residents from other arid and semi arid villages flock the Trowel area during harvesting seasons to buy and sometimes beg for their food.
To make more families food secure and an in the spirit of brotherhood, farmers linked to Natirae farm, are also approaching families with huge tracks of idle land to surrender portions for use in food production through irrigation.
"We as a community have learnt to be generous. We have many people around us who do not have access to water due to distance to the river. We encourage them to join us in farming by giving them a piece of land and the support they need," Ekutan adds.
The farmers will be harvesting green maize the next one month.
How the project works
John Ekipor Lokamar, 32, is the chairman of the Natirae farm and was among the pioneer farmers that were taken for a week's workshop before the project was launched.
Lokamar has been providing information and technical know-how to the farmers. He says farming activities have improved lives of more than 700 residents in Natirae, some being direct and others indirect beneficiaries of the programme.
"Farming is a good venture that has helped the community. We are fortunate that our farms are fertile so we don't use fertiliser and still get good yields. The food we produce is of good quality," he says.
Despite being and arid and semi arid land, the larger Turkana has 2.5 million hectares of arable land according to county statistics. According to Kassim Lupao, a nutritionist at Panafricare, water canals are 700 metres away from River Trowel to the farm and are extended across the farms to ensure every farmer has access to water.
"This project is aimed at helping the community deal with malnutrition by ensuring adequate food production, improving livelihoods and mitigating climate change. We have been working together with the residents in Trowel Ward and Katilu Wards by digging boreholes and putting up solar powered pumps and encouraging them to embrace nutritious foods," he says.
Lupao says most Turkana residents were used to consuming beef but are currently embracing other foods like vegetables, green peas maize and sorghum among others.
"Sorghum produce by farmers can be consumed in different ways. It can be mixed with beans and boiled like 'githeri' or it can be grinded to produce flour for porridge and ugali. It can also be used to make chapati," he says.
He also adds that farmers have been equipped with agronomical knowledge to ensure they sell their produce at a profitable price. He also discloses that the organization has 23 farms across Loima and Turkana South that serve the same purpose.
The project initially targeted lactating mothers and women of reproductive health but was extended to men in the community to ensure they don't feel left out. The biggest challenge they face is warthogs that eat their produce at night and pests' infestations.
Agnes Lokurkaa says the warthogs are a big menace.
"There was a time when we came to the farm in the morning and found a whole portion of maize had been eaten by these animals. We have decided to guard our farms especially when the crops are almost ready for harvest," she says.
To address the issue, farmers here have resorted to building manyattas in the farm and the man stay overnight to protect the produce.