Tharaka Nithi, a county nestled in the heart of Eastern Kenya, is no stranger to the challenges a changing climate poses. For generations, its farmers have battled unpredictable rainfall, soil degradation, and food insecurity. However, amidst these difficulties, a ray of hope has emerged through the introduction of Conservation Agriculture (CA) by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). Combined with improved seed varieties that are short-term maturing and drought-resistant, CA has revolutionized the agricultural landscape and sparked a new era of resilience and prosperity.
During my seven-week internship project in Tharaka Nithi, I studied the grain-legume cropping system and its impact on farmers. My internship objectives were threefold: to investigate the history and evolution of the grain-legume cropping system, to comprehensively characterize the cropping system through a year-long analysis, and to evaluate its resilience to climate change and potential for wider adoption.
The farmers I encountered during my internship were nothing short of inspiring. They hailed from diverse backgrounds, with varying years of experience in farming, farm sizes, ages, and genders. With farming experience spanning from 7 to 40 years, these individuals represented a rich tapestry of knowledge and resilience. Yet, they all shared a common goal: cultivating resilience in the face of climate change and ensuring a better future for themselves and their families. Through interviews with 25 smallholder farmers, both men and women, and insightful focus group discussions, I gathered a wealth of information that painted a vivid picture of Tharaka Nithi’s agricultural transformation. Here are my key takeaways from the internship:
Personal History: A Passion Passed Down Through Generations
Farming in Tharaka Nithi is deeply ingrained in the lives of its inhabitants. Passed down through generations, many farmers developed their passion for agriculture by observing and participating in farm activities alongside their parents. Furthermore, farming in this region transcends gender boundaries, with women actively engaged and displaying remarkable curiosity and openness to embracing new farming techniques. Age is merely a number in this farming community, as both the young and elderly farmers are eager to learn and adopt better farming methods, attending farmer group meetings, training sessions, and enthusiastically sharing ideas.
Farm History: From Food Insecurity to Abundance
Historically, Tharaka Nithi faced severe food insecurity and extreme poverty levels. However, a remarkable shift has occurred in recent years, transforming the region into a full food basket. Several factors contributed to this positive change, including the transition from subsistence farming to agribusiness, the adoption of conservation agriculture and agroforestry, organized planting methods, the use of certified seeds, grain-legume rotation, and the implementation of two-season planting. Additionally, farmers now have access to more training opportunities on smart farming practices. As a result, they have learned to adapt to the season and rainfall patterns, ensuring appropriate crop selection.
The Power of Conservation Agriculture: Retaining Soil Moisture for Bountiful Harvests
One of the most significant advantages experienced by farmers in Tharaka Nithi is the practice of conservation agriculture, which provides a permanent soil cover. Crop residue, such as that from sorghum, millet, and maize, is used as mulch, aiding in moisture retention. In this semi-arid region, where rainfall is limited and evapotranspiration rates are high, water retention through mulching has revolutionized farming. Crops now receive moisture for extended periods, leading to increased germination rates and higher yields. Even with low rainfall, farmers practicing CA have managed to achieve successful harvests.
Crop Information: Catering to Local Needs and Market Demand
The diversity of crops grown in Tharaka Nithi is strongly influenced by the region’s dietary preferences. Staple foods like millet porridge, githeri (a maize and cowpeas/beans mixture), banana, cassava, green grams, and ugali (maize flour staple) form the basis of crop rotation. Climate, market demand, pests, and soil fertility are also considered when planning crop rotations. The adoption of a grain-legume rotation system has become a popular choice among farmers, with fast-maturing legumes (cowpeas and green grams) planted during the short rains season and grains (sorghum, millet, and maize) during the long rains season. Additionally, intercropping techniques, such as pigeon pea alley cropping, have been widely embraced. Pigeon pea is grown in rows to create alleys, contributing to soil fertility, and providing farmers with increased food security and income through the sale of pigeon pea dry seeds.
The Profitable Sorghum
Among the primary cereals grown in Tharaka Nithi, sorghum has emerged as a cash crop and a vital source of income for many farmers. Its drought tolerance makes it particularly suitable for the region, acting as a substitute for the staple maize crop, which is more susceptible to drought. Furthermore, the ready market provided by Kenya Breweries has bolstered its popularity. Other crops, including millet, maize, cowpeas, pigeon pea, and green grams, serve as food and cash crops, adding to the farmers’ income.
Farm Management: Balancing Traditional and Modern Techniques
While soil testing is recommended for accurate application rates, the cost is inhibitive to most farmers. Nonetheless, they purchase certified seeds for most crops from local agro vets, except for cowpeas, where good-quality seeds are scarce. Homemade composted animal manure, made from a combination of cattle, chicken, and goat waste, is widely used to promote soil fertility. Synthetic fertilizers, specifically Calcium Ammonium Nitrate, are preferred for top dressing. Finally, farmers apply pesticides and herbicides to protect their crops from pests and weeds, with the fall armyworm being a notorious threat to sorghum, millet, and maize crops.
Challenges and Water Shortage
Water scarcity resulting from inconsistent rainfall poses a significant challenge for farmers in Tharaka Nithi. Insufficient water during crucial periods can result in reduced crop yields and financial losses. Inadequate water storage facilities remain a pressing concern for farmers. The wasted water during the planting seasons could be efficiently utilized if proper storage systems were in place. The farmers unanimously express a pressing need for dam lining as a more effective water storage solution. They propose a partnership with CFGB, requesting support in procuring dam liners, as digging the dams is within their capabilities. Additionally, high costs of farm inputs and pests and diseases present ongoing challenges for farmers.
Tharaka Nithi’s agricultural transformation is a remarkable tale of triumph over adversity. The farmers’ unwavering commitment and willingness to embrace change have laid a solid foundation for a prosperous future. With each harvest, they sow the seeds of progress, empowering their communities and offering a blueprint for sustainable farming practices in the face of climate change. The resilient cropping systems and diversified approaches established in Tharaka Nithi serve as shining examples worth scaling and replicating in other regions. Through their journey, Tharaka Nithi’s farmers have demonstrated that with determination, innovation, and a collective spirit, the possibilities for a thriving agricultural sector are boundless. Let their success serve as a clarion call for action, urging us to scale up transformative practices, foster collaboration, provide access to improved seeds, and support farmer-led initiatives. By nurturing resilience and sustainability in agriculture, we can combat climate change and secure food security for communities worldwide.
About the Author:
Laetitia Mukungu is an international student at the University of Manitoba, currently pursuing her MSc in Plant Science. Her thesis research is on “Nutrient Sources for Organic Production: Soil Biological and Agronomic Responses.” Laetitia has a burning passion for conservation agriculture, climate-smart farming practices, and empowering rural farmers. She is also multilingual (fluent in English, Swahili & Spanish. When she is not busy conducting her research, you can find Laetitia indulging in her guilty pleasure: binge-watching true crime documentaries on Netflix, participating in gardening, and savouring the warmth of a comforting cup of tea.