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Dry land farmers outsmart climate shocks with innovation

By Philip Muasya | August 8th 2020 at 09:00:00 GMT +0300

Professor Mary Mburu (centre) from South Eastern Kenya University (Seku) with livestock keepers Judah Loontasati (right) and Antony Mutua. [Philip Muasya/Standard]

Owing to adverse effects of climate change, water scarcity has become the latest curse for many farmers in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (Asal). With depressed rains in recent years, rain-fed agriculture has become highly unreliable as crops dry up before maturity due to erratic rains.

However, amid these vagaries, innovative farmers in the three counties of Ukambani as well as pastoralists in Kajiado County have devised ingenious ways to keep hunger pangs at bay.

By adopting practical ways of water harvesting and retention, a cross-section of farmers in Kitui, Makueni and Machakos counties have ensured steady food production for domestic consumption and commercial purposes. 

Likewise, pastoralists in Kajiado County which is also ravaged by recurrent droughts leaving livestock without pasture have adopted grass growing techniques to allow for steady supply of pasture for their animals.

Water harvesting

Construction of farm ponds, sand dams and even dew harvesting are some of the mitigation measures that have proven successful in climate-smart agriculture, as farmers move away from rain-fed agriculture. Others include the use of sunken beds and nylon mulched sacks to retain water flow for maximum crop yield.

In Mwala, Machakos County, Albanus Kamuti has constructed a 5,000 litre farm pond that taps run off water during the rains. The pond is fitted with a dam liner to prevent seepage. A top cover also ensures minimal evaporation.

Using a foot pump, the farmer pumps the water into a sizable erected tank, from where it flows by gravity to water his crops under drip irrigation.

“I dug the farm pond all alone but the liner was provided by World Vision. It has served me well,” says Kamuti.

At his greenhouse, he grows tomatoes and kales. This ensures his family of five does not lack in food. He also sells the surplus harvest and the income is good.

“A 20kg bucket of tomatoes goes for between Sh1,000 and Sh1,500. The trick is in good timing when there is little supply in the market so as to fetch good prices,” says Kamuti, revealing that he grows tomatoes twice per year.

Per season, his greenhouse can yield slightly over five tonnes of tomatoes, giving him between Sh250,000 and Sh300,000.

He also does integrated farming to maximise on his three-quarter piece of land where he also keeps poultry and dairy cows.

Drip Irrigation

Elsewhere in Mwala village in Mutomo, Kitui County, Gladys Kivoto is also reaping big from farm pond technology. Her current bountiful harvest of butternuts and onions is a testimony to this.

She has three farm ponds lined up strategically such that when one is filled up, it spills to the next one.

“Even with little rains, we harvest enough water for our farming activities. It is a simple technology that should be embraced by all, especially the youth now that the white-collar jobs are hard to come by,” says Kivoto. Her farm is also lush with tomatoes and pawpaws.

Like her fellow farmer in Machakos, drip irrigation is her favourite mode of watering crops.

The water is pumped using a generator to raised plastic tanks and then released to drip pipes through gravity.

“Drip irrigation consumes little water and the rate of evaporation is minimal,” she says.

At her local market, a kilo of onions retails at between Sh120 and Sh150. A kilo of butternuts goes for between Sh100 and Sh150. A piece can weigh slightly above kilo, she says.

Mrs Kivoto notes that soils in Ukambani are virgin and fertile thus do not need fertilisers to produce bumper harvests.

Sand dams

Mr Emanuel Fondo, World Vision project manager who has been spearheading drylands development project in Machakos County, points out that farmers in Asal areas need to adopt new farming techniques.

Some of these techniques include water harvesting such as use of farm ponds and construction of sand dams along seasonal rivers.

“We have trained farmers on effective on-farm rainwater harvesting to improve food security and build resilience for climate change. Most of the farmers are transiting from subsistence farming to commercial farming through climate smart agriculture,” remarks Fondo.

Drought resistant crops

Tucked away in Mwingi West, Kitui County is Kithingati Self Help Group which is involved in production of traditional and drought-resistant high-nutrient food crops such as sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cowpeas and millet and sorghum.

The farmers have been trained on increasing smallholder productivity and profitability by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

Sunken beds

They do these by practising conservation agriculture by use of simple but modern farming technologies like use of sunken beds and mulching bags to prevent soil erosion and retain runoff.

“We have not only eliminated hunger in our households but also attained good nutrition,” says Eunice Manga, one of the farmers.

The farmers also have a solar drier where they dry their surplus vegetables for future use to eliminate wastage.

In Makueni County, sand dams are changing lives for local farmers. Through the technical support of Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF) based at Mtito Andei, farmers in Tawa are now assured of enough water for domestic use and small scale irrigation farming.

“In the past we could not even keep livestock because there was chronic water shortage. There was not enough even for human consumption. However with the two sand dams, we have enough water throughout the year. We plant a variety of crops; vegetables, sweet potatoes, bananas, pawpaws and others. Our lives have improved a lot,” explains Winfred Mwangangi, a farmer.

Mrs Joyce Malonza, another farmer who grows tomatoes and watermelons also shares in her joy. She says in the past their crops would dry up in the farms due to lack of enough rains. Currently, lack of rains is never a worry. Shallow wells dug along the recharged river beds provide enough water which is pumped into tanks and supplied to the communities for both farming and domestic use. The farmers have actually produced more than enough and are now worried about the market. But at household level, food is in plenty.

Mr Andrew Musila, the development director at ASDF explains the wonder technology behind sand dams.

“Sand dams are concrete embankments constructed across seasonal rivers to store sand during the rainy season. When the sand dam is filled with sand, it recharges the underground aquifers and raises the water table,” he explains.

By filling up several seasonal rivers this way, Musila says the communities around are assured of constant supply of water.

“It is a sustainable and cheap method of harvesting water. The more sand dams there are, the better for the environment unlike boreholes that drain the aquifers and kill the environment,” he states.

Dew harvesting

It is also in Makueni where South Eastern Kenya University (Seku) is piloting the dew harvesting technology for crop production. This involves the use of specially designed boxes that are placed at the base of a plant to tap and condense dew into water.

Dr Moses Mwangi, a lecturer at the department of Hydrology and Aquatic Science in the university and who is driving the research initiative says even in the driest times of the year there is always water in the atmosphere which can be condensed and harvested for use in crop production.

“It is a workable idea. Farmers need to be trained on how to harvest water in the atmosphere to grow food crops. They do not need to wait for the rains or over exploit the underground aquifers,” Dr Mwangi says.

The first fruits of this technology were witnessed in Mbooni West where Kaloki Mutwota planted 50 pawpaw plants on trial basis. To his surprise, they all grew to maturity.

“We are working closely with the farmers to own the technology because it is effective and can easily improve food security in Asal areas without relying on rains,” says the expert.

Seku, through the School of Agriculture has also been training livestock farmers in Kajiado County on ways of improving pasture for their animals and combating the effects of incessant droughts which in the past has seen local farmers lose herds of livestock.

Through a project dubbed A Sustainable Approach to Livelihood Improvement (ASALI) the pastoralists have been equipped with skills to regenerate indigenous grass as well as grow new varieties of grass. This is to ensure enough fodder for the animals.

In addition, the farmers are also trained on paddocking and how to make hay and store fodder for future use.

Professor Mary Mburu who teaches in the School of Agriculture says: “Availability of grass is central to range-lands because 70 per cent of the country’s livestock are in arid and semi-arid areas.”

The training is premised on the methods of producing and sustaining enough fodder for livestock among pastoral communities to cushion them from the shocks of droughts, she adds.


climate change climate-smart agriculture
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