Anthony Kioko, is the Ward Agricultural Officer (WAO) for Matungulu and Kyeleni wards in Machakos County in the new decentralised government system. In the former system, he would have been the District Agricultural Extension Officer (DAEO). Kioko first heard about the work Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE) was doing in Machakos through one of the local forums. “It is in this forum that I realised the work ICE is doing is complimenting mine in many ways,” he says.
As a government officer, Kioko is keen on promoting sustainable agricultural practices that do not put too much strain on the natural resources. ICE on the other hand is sensitising communities on the causes and effects of climate change and how to counter them. “We are basically different agents preaching the same message to the same farmers” he adds. That is how he bought into the idea of a partnership with ICE.
Since then the relationship between ICE and the county government has realised a number of benefits including running a series of joint training events on appropriate technology transfer to farmers. “We have jointly trained in the areas of water harvesting, enterprise diversification and environmental conservation,” he explains.
Through these training, farmers have learnt how to use Zai Pits in their cropping systems, harvest run-off from rain water into retention ditches and conserve the soil using terraces. “Through ICE’s support we have trained them on indigenous poultry keeping and commercial fruit farming as strategies for diversifying their farm enterprises,” he adds. Some of the fruits farmers are growing include passion fruits and grafted mangoes which are mainly for export.
Kioko is upbeat about what the future of this partnership holds and he looks to brighter days ahead. “You cannot imagine what a simple technology like a Zai Pit can do to a region when well executed. We can now bank on the assurance of a harvest in an area that is largely synonymous with massive crop failures most of the seasons,” he says.
Zai Pits are a technique used in cropping where 6 to 9 crops are planted in a single pit lined with compost manure to enrich the soil. The pits are then moistened with water to prolong the life of the crop in times of water scarcity. A Zai Pit measuring 2 feet in height, depth and width can hold 6 plants while the slightly larger 3-feet pit can accommodate up to 9 plants. Because of the concentrated level of water and nutrients in the pit, yields tend to be significantly higher than in a normal farmed crop.
These technologies are proving effective in equipping farmers with the knowledge and skills to make better use of their locally available resources to improve their resilience against the adverse effects of climate change. “Nowadays farmers are no longer watching as run-off from the rains goes to waste. They are channelling this to their farms by digging retention ditches, trenches and in-between terraces that increase soil moisture enabling the crops to survive for longer than others. It has expanded their horizon of thinking by enabling them to venture into non-traditional food crops such as fruits and vegetables because of the availability of water for small-scale irrigation.
Angelina Ndunge Munyao, a maize farmer and the chairlady of Kyeni kya Mithini group, who has 41 Zai Pits of her own, bears witness to this partnership. “For starters,” she says, “we are visited more by extension officers attached to the ICE project who come to monitor our progress and give us valuable inputs on our work. In my farm, for instance, I am nowadays visited twice a week,” she says.
Ndunge is confident the level of awareness created through ICE’s training in the area will make the community more prepared to face the challenges of climate change more resiliently. “Most group members are now equipped with a range of techniques they can make use of to improve their yields through water harvesting, soil conservation and diversification of agricultural activities in their farms,” she beams.
“The results of our good work are speaking for themselves. Heads are beginning to turn in the community as our neighbours flock to our homes to learn the secret of our success,” Ndunge adds smiling. Lawrence Musyoka and Grace Mumbua are two such neighbours who frequent her home. They have been engaged in farming for over two decades now and they know all too well the ups and downs of farming in the semi-arid Machakos.
Musyoka began farming in 1996. He owns 2 acres of land where he grows indigenous food crops such as millet, green grams and cow peas. He also tries a hand at maize and beans. Mumbua, on the other hand, is slightly older in this occupation having began in 1994. She grows cow peas, millet, cassava and other indigenous food crops on her two acre piece of land.
Both farmers, who are not project beneficiaries, have keenly been observing and admiring their neighbours’ farms from a distance for some time now. “The first time I tried planting my crops in Zai Pits I had very devastating results. I later realised that I had left out manure which is a crucial component in the success of this technology. After Ndunge pointed out the omission, I corrected the mistake in the next planting season and now I have a healthy crop,” beams Mumbua.
Musyoka, on the other hand, found some of the water harvesting and soil conservation techniques farmers in the ICE project were using in their farms, such as the use of trenches, quite impressive. “I also liked the knowledge they had on the indigenous seed varieties that were best suited for growing in this area,” he adds.
The availability of quality seeds has been a major challenge to farmers in Ukambani as Francisca Mbuli Kitheka, a member of Kithio Kya Mawithyololoko group, points out. ICE, through the project is addressing this challenge by not only promoting early maturing varieties but also sensitising the community on the need to preserve indigenous seed types that are adaptive to this region.
The group has since developed a seed bank of indigenous seed varieties, some of which are almost disappearing from the traditional food chain. “By tapping into the indigenous knowledge of our elderly women, we have been able to learn about the different seed varieties that existed back then and how they were recuperated,” she adds. The group has already managed to identify and preserve over 32 seed types.
This is the kind of knowledge Musyoka and Mumbua are earnestly seeking. As indirect beneficiaries, they have found value in the work ICE is engaged in with groups and are eager to learn and adopt the farming practices introduced. “We look forward to joining one of the ICE-supported group so we can benefit more from this wonderful work we are seeing,” Mumbua adds.
The evidence of a good job done is visible and the testimonies of the farmers and government extension officers strengthens the fact that this partnership is working. Going forward, certain issues such as reliability in water supply, affordable capital for expansion, diseases and sustainability will have to be addressed. “Even though we are harvesting water, it is still not enough to scale up our work,” observes Mbuli. “Our eyes are now open to the additional opportunities we can tap into if only we had enough water and an affordable source of capital to scale up our work,” she adds.
Kioko is equally concerned about a sustainable source of water that can be used commercially. He also feels much more can be done to increase the rates of adoption among the farmers. “I think with some refresher training which can include more farmers, perceptions and attitudes can be changed more and I am sure we will realise greater impact,” he says.
“Zai Pits are generally perceived to be a labour intensive and costly undertaking but I would rather the farmers focused on their long-term gains than on the short-term costs. Such refresher courses can demystify notions like these,” he adds while also emphasising on the need to engage the youth more in group activities.
“I hope ICE can explore the possibilities of scaling up the project to reach more communities in the area and to be more involved in lobbying the county government to dedicate more resources and mainstream climate change in the county agenda,” he concludes.