Six Agroecology practices are being promoted in Western Kenya

Nairobi: Kenya- Western Kenya has been a sugar growing zone for a while now and sugarcane being a heavy feeder, there has been a lot of inorganic fertilizer use in the region. So the soils are actually depleted.

The Welthungerhilfe organization under Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) saw the need to help small-scale farmers in these areas cultivate higher yield, more nutritious crops to fight hunger and poverty while saving natural resources. With a program also designed to sustainably strengthen resilience to climate change effects by sharing knowledge on climate-adapted cultivation and harvesting methods with climate-resistant crops.

GIZ also participated in the first Eastern Africa agroecology conference. In a conversation with the country coordinator George Otieno Onyango one of the implementers of the prosilience project to promote agroecology in western Kenya shared the intentions of the project.

George Otieno Onyango at the exhibition booth with participants(second from the right hand )


From their baseline surveys found out that the potential of hydrogen (PH) of the soils in this region is very low and the soils are very acidic with the soil organic carbon totally depleted while those other minerals required for land growth are also poor.

Sample of degraded soil at the exhibition booth

‘‘We realized that western Kenya soils need rehabilitation, that is why we decided to promote the six agroecology technologies in the counties of Siaya, Kakamega and Bungoma,’’ said the country coordinator.

The Agroecology practices promoted

One of the practices is conservation agriculture, with continuous ploughing of the farms, the soil fertility deteriorates, the soils becoming vulnerable to soil erosion, and the microorganisms die because of exposure to the sun and other dangers. Under this, a lot of attention has been directed to three principles which are minimum tillage, maximum soil cover, maximum, permanent and crop rotation not forgetting biodiversity.

Under maximum tillage, they came up with tools working closely with the agricultural development corporation that is a government affiliated organization in charge of coming up with new technologies. They came up with tools that will enable farmers to minimize soil disturbance, tools like soil preparation tools, planting tools and weed control tools.

Land preparation through minimum tillage

They also train youths on the fabrication of these tools so that they can be available to their small scale farmers. So if a farmer is doing large scale conservation agriculture which will need mechanization, they can use tractors, use oxen to draw, and hand held tools which can be used by small scale farmers.

According to Onyango some of these tools are rippers which only rip off where a farmer wants to sow, breaking off the hard pan and leaving the unused parts intact and have designed some for tractor use.

They have subsoilers for soils that have stayed for a longtime without any agricultural activity that have developed hard pans so a farmer subsoils first, then rip and as they rip, they open up places for compost fertilizers. ‘‘When we talk of compost fertilizers and for seeds, we talk of organic fertilizers. We are actually promoting organic fertilizers,’’ Onyango added.

A compost heap being checked on by a farmer in western Kenya

The organization is training farmers on how to make their own organic fertilizers, because with organic compost is simple and general where a farmer can always use it, training them how to lay the layers with the dry matter, green matter and cow dung including ash. But also training them on the laying and turning with the number of days that takes these fertilizers to be ready for use.

Farmers are trained on the use of worms known as ‘‘Red wriggler worms’’ which decompose any organic waste from homes and farms and any waste generated. It is a way of waste management with the exception of anything acidic and fatty.

Sample of the Red wriggler worms

They are able to get two products from this ”vermicomposting technology”. One of them is foliar fertilizer or ‘‘we call it vermity, vermidues’’. It has two functions as a foliar or a pest control. It is a biological control method or a bio pesticide. They get cast out of this which is also a planting organic fertilizer.

Under conservation agriculture, they promote different cover crops which are for moisture retention use. ‘‘We realize that we are hit by climate change and we are uncertain, despite the climate change changes. In western Kenya we are receiving moderate rains apart from the lower part of the lake region which is a bit drier which are areas around Lake Victoria. But Bungoma and Kakamega receive moderate and rain crop production. But even with that adequate rain. We still find that food security is not there because the soils are depleted. So that’s why we try to regenerate their soils so they can produce food even with the little rain in the lake region areas’’ Onyango expressed.

There has been very positive feedback from farmers because they realize that the technologies GIZ are promoting is reducing the cost of production. ‘‘We are living in a world where farmers know that they always have to use fertilizers from shops that are inorganic’’.

These farmers have always been introduced to inorganic fertilizers, living in a sugar cane zone and sugarcane being a heavy feeder, a lot of inorganic fertilizers like Urea, DAP and CAN among others  were introduced by so many companies and even given on credit that if a farmer cannot afford then they are debited from their sugarcane.

So it is like contract farming. With that mentality when the sugarcane production sector went down, farmers moved into production of maize and staple foods but however they still have that mentality that they cannot do farming without inorganic fertilizers.

‘‘What we actually do is change their attitude first, talk to farmers and tell them that inorganic fertilizers are not the solution, the solution lies in the soil, making them be aware of the conditions of their soils,’’ Onyango said. And the one thing they appreciate from them is that any soil test performed is made to be known to the farmers. ‘‘We let them know and any soil result brought to them must mention organic carbon and that is why we hit the ground,’’ he also added.

Soil carbon is purely compost. Farmers need to add organic matter in the soil. Where do they get the organic matter? Of course from compost. They are told to add turns and turns of organic carbon so this makes them understand what this organic carbon is, it is compost.

Through demonstrations, they don’t just train them but train them how to make compost, with the compost they have made is used to plant a section then compared with their conventional methods of farming. What follows here is most of the small scale farmers run to compost because they see a great change.

Actually the vermi compost have the two components yet the one thing they believe is that once they plant with the ammonium phosphate fertilizer, they have to top dress with Urea or CAN fertilizers. Farmers are told that the compost being given to them has all the components they would look for.

“If you want Urea, use the “vermi juice acid’’, even in our normal compost we put titanium, which is very good in nitrogen, cow dung is also a good source of nitrogen. The farmer will not go to the shop while they believe, they have to do the two steps which is planting and top dressing, we tell them once you plant with enough compost you are done,” he pointed out. Soil fertility management is very positive from several farmers who have embraced compost fertilizer use.

Samples of vermi juice

They are also promoting maximum soil cover of different cover crops to of Mucuna (velvet bean), Dolichos Lab lab, Canavalia (butter bean) and Chrotolaria and also incorporate in cow peas. The work of the cover crops is one, moisture retention.

“Climate change is hitting us hard, the little rain falling on the ground should be conserved,’’ Onyango mentioned. There are three main ways of losing our waters through evaporation, surface runoff, and deep infiltration. This is where organic compost manure helps on the deep infiltration because it has a tendency of holding moisture at the roots of the crops. For surface run off they are doing soil and water conservation by promoting vegetative cross block barriers. These are just terraces where farmers incorporate grass on it to stabilize the terraces.

The biomass left by mucuna cover crop

Cover crop also acts as a mulch reducing surface runoff, then through evaporation, it controls surface evaporation, another use of cover crop is for weed management, you realize that they have scrappers under conservation agriculture. ‘‘You need not to weed, you just scrape. By scrapping you don’t destroy the weeds completely, the weeds will still remain and come up again. For a farmer to suppress them should cover the soil since every plant needs light and without that light it dies,’’ he insisted.

Cover crop is also key in soil fertility improvement. The foliage, the leaf fall is massive in some of these cover crops by adding soil organic carbon, because most of them are nitrogen fixing.

They also promote soil and water conservation to control soil erosion because there is need of these top soils to remain in the soil.  Also conserve water in the farm, agroforestry, greenhouse gasses are needed to be taken out of the environment, and what can help are only trees, so they promote agroforestry varieties that are beneficial to the soil as they help also withdraw emissions from the environment. Different agroforestry trees with different uses.

GIZ is also helping mothers outside there to get firewood, some of them are folder crops that can help in cooking. Also promote ‘‘bush push technology’’ which is biological control of pests in farms where they should have biodiversity. Having improved the soil farmers can produce different types of crops.

Improved soil sample at the exhibition

Challenges promoting Agroecology

A lot of challenges. In this agriculture sector there are different actors for example business men where they must sell these inorganic fertilizers, so agroecology promoters are competing with them. “You go outside to train on compost, they come behind you and tell the farmers that just compost will not help, Onyango said this has to be the biggest challenge.

The government, agriculture has been politicized. Working in counties, maybe a governor feels that when he gives fertilizers to the farmers who are his electorate will get votes while some are pro ecology and some are against it. So farmers are being hit from all corners. ‘‘you realize once a farmer is trained today about soil conservation agriculture, after you disappear for one month and the farm is totally changed, he has moved to another group that requires inorganic fertilizers, and will even do away with soil conservation. That is what is affecting adoption.

Otieno Onyango’s advice to small scale farmers

I advise the farmers in western Kenya to improve their resilience in these times of climate change and it is only through agroecology practices such as improving soil status, conserve the little moisture they receive from the little rain and use specifically organic fertilizers.

The future of agroecology in western Kenya

‘‘We have a long way to go until the government appreciates agroecology and puts it into policies and not just formulating policies, but domesticating the policies and then implementing them’’.

According to the report from Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development, Kenya read to the participants at the conference: the government is politically pleased to be part of the discussions and looking forward to the combinations of policy actions and regulations in the planning and it has continued to have sound policies aimed at creating and enabling environment towards agricultural sustainable transformation.

This story is with great support from ESAFF Uganda through the Agroecology School for   Journalists and Communicators.




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