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Yatta farmers on the journey to food sufficiency

By NJOKI CHEGE | June 24th 2012


These are the words of youthful Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo in her controversial book, Dead Aid.

While many may not agree with her views on aid, one community in Makutano-Yatta, Kinyatta Division of Machakos County has certainly taken her views seriously.

Conventionally dismissed for a dry and unproductive land, (even the name Yatta means ‘dry area’), many people thought that nothing good could come out of this place. And, in many ways, they were right. The area received little rain and its unproductive soil reduced the Yatta people to dependants of donor aid.

Just like all aid, there is a time when the funds are withheld over one reason or another and when it happened to this community not so long ago, the people resigned themselves to fate — death by hunger.  But then waiting for death helplessly is sometimes tough.

So they decided to do something about their situation and less than five years later, their forsake land is the story of life, new beginnings, productiveness, and oh yes, food in plenty!

It all began in March 2009, when a group of Yatta residents decided enough was enough.

They wanted to transform their community. To do this they had to radically change the people’s views about aid. So they launched Operation Mwolyo Out (Omo), mwolyo means relief in Akamba.  Local bishop, Titus Masika, took the reins of the group.

He was ready to lead the community out of dependency. 

“With little rains and inappropriate farming technology, the people of always lacked food, becoming totally dependent on relief,” says Bishop Masika.

With Omo in place, the community was ready to get rid of this dependency syndrome. The people came up with ways of carving out a livelihood.

Water harvesting

They had a five-year plan, in which period they were to have sufficient food and water. 

Says Bishop Masika: “Being a semi-arid land, water was a constant problem in Yatta. People walked for more than 20km daily in search of water. And Omo addressed this by exploring water harvesting technology to supplement the scanty rain water.”

To get this done, villagers dug up pans of 20ft deep to collect rainwater. In fact, each homestead has up to two pans.

The villagers were excited about what they had achieved, for the water collected in the pans is used to irrigate crops to maturity. Slowly but steadily, this is leading to food security in the region.

Peter Katuu and his wife Phoebe, who have lived in Yatta all their lives, say they have seen their community transform — from dependency to self-sustainability.  The couple’s one and half acre farm was bare and unproductive just a few years ago but now it teems with vegetables such as chillies, tomatoes and onions, all for export. 

Peter remembers the days when mwolyo was their only source of livelihood. 

“Five years ago, poverty was widespread in this area because the harsh conditions could not allow us to farm. We could barely make ends meet.

Everything was a struggle and it was hard to raise school fees. But today, I am an importer,” he says with a tinge of pride.

Paltry returns

As a result of food and water security, the couple, like many others in the village, has taken up dairy farming which is also a key income-generating project.

Peter says before they decided to take destiny in their hands, people would till acres of land but the harvest was paltry, which was often sold to middlemen at throwaway prices to meet their immediate needs. In the end this left the people in a vicious cycle of poverty.

To achieve the rich harvest, the farmers dig trenches, known as zai pits, that are two square feet. They fill the bottom foot with farm trash, which helps to hold water after rainfall or irrigation, while the upper foot is filled with soil mixed with manure.

This prepares the farmers for a rich harvest for the crops get sufficient nutrients.

Explains Barry Musumba, one of the local farmers: “Ideally, half an acre can hold up to 400 zai pits which yield a maximum of 16 bags of maize per season. This is a huge difference from what a ten-acre piece of land would yield, had the farmers not employed this method.” 

This is the story of other villagers in Yatta; they are living a transformation and like what they are reaping.

Nothing, they tell us, can stop Kenya from becoming food-sufficient. We imagine how all arid regions can borrow this technology, attitude and determination to beat food deficiency.

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