Why have previous efforts to introduce improved farming techniques and better seed varieties in Kenya’s semi-arid lands — home to 20% of the country’s population — not succeeded?
Answering this question is key to efforts by researchers from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and Canada’s McGill University to encourage the widespread adoption of more productive farming methods and higher-yielding, more resilient seeds.
Working together with farmers in Makueni, Machakos, and Tharaka-Nithi counties, the researchers hope to turn back a growing tide of hunger in the sprawling 7.5-million-hectare region. They see the use of innovative technologies and practices as essential to dealing with the problems farmers face, including frequent drought, degraded land, and a changing climate.
The KARI-McGill team is supported by the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF), a joint initiative of IDRC and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. CIFSRF oversees 21 projects that bring Canadian and developing-country researchers together to address the interlocking problems of environmental degradation, poor agriculture, and hunger in food-insecure regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
KARI’s Lutta Muhammad recalls that when development agencies’ previous trials of new methods or seed varieties ended, farmers often “simply went back to the old ways of doing things.”
Researchers and farmers weren’t working together to test the improved technologies under local conditions. This left researchers unaware of the numerous challenges farmers faced and farmers unaware of the benefits that new methods could bring them.
The Kenyan and Canadian partners are taking a new approach. They are testing ways of giving resource-poor farmers a primary role in developing strategies, as well as greater access to agricultural inputs and markets.
They are also testing ways to strengthen existing farmer networks. Peer-to-peer communication is essential to spreading the word about successes and transferring knowledge, so many more farmers will embrace the new techniques.
Unleashing a formidable wave of change requires engaging farmers on a large scale. The researchers have been working with more than 1,200 men and women organized into 54 farmer groups.
These farmers have identified the improved techniques and seed varieties that best meet their needs, and are monitoring the impacts of these changes. They have also started sharing their knowledge with their neighbours — more than 5,400 farmers in another 216 farmers groups.
New collaborations between farmer groups are now springing up to meet emerging challenges. These increasing links indicate that the research initiative’s impact among the region’s 600,000 struggling, small-scale farmers is likely to grow.
The ultimate goal: to develop models that future development programs can use to promote the rapid spread of locally proven advances. The researchers hope to fuel a momentum among farmer groups that continues long after the project formally shuts down.
Examples of better farming
There are encouraging signs that farmers in the test communities are making progress in overcoming environmental challenges. Many fields now have “tied-ridges” — a simple but effective means of capturing torrential rains. Without these, the rain would quickly run off, resulting in the loss of precious water and valuable soil.
Local breeds of chickens, important food sources when it’s too dry to raise crops, are housed in tidy structures that provide protection from predators and disease. Regular vaccination has doubled the survival rate of birds that in the past were ravaged by Newcastle disease. Farmers have also planted improved varieties of local, high-value traditional crops such as green grams and cowpeas and now have easier access to more dependable certified seeds.
Lutta Muhammad, who is co-principal investigator in the KARI-McGill collaboration, says these multiple interventions appear to be paying off, even after months without rain. “Most of those households, despite the very difficult conditions, are going to have food for quite a bit of the season,” he reports.
To ensure these early successes inspire more farmers to innovate, field days have showcased the achievements of the 54 farmer groups to several thousand other farmers from nearby villages.
What makes the farmers effective ambassadors in promoting new agricultural methods, says McGill researcher Gordon Hickey, is the enthusiasm that flows from having chosen the techniques and new seed varieties to help them realize their goals.
“People feel like they are being listened to and learning what they want to learn,” he says. “That’s essential for success. There’s a lot of excitement in the communities.”
Many members of the farmer groups have also received training that allows them to reach out to other farmers. For example, 54 farmers trained to vaccinate chickens have been offering mass vaccinations in communities across the region, often operating as small businesses. Another 54 have been trained in post-harvest handling, while more than 1,700 have been trained in market development, two areas vital to improving farmers’ incomes.
Some of the farmer groups have begun to buy fertilizer and seeds collectively in bulk, to negotiate better prices for their produce, and to establish seed banks and tree nurseries. These unprompted initiatives suggest that the grassroots networks will continue to flourish.
Stephen Dale is an Ottawa-based writer.