African smallholders are adopting conservation agriculture techniques

When you’re subsisting on three-quarters of an acre, increasing 
maize production from 32 kg a year to 990 kg is a life-changing event

This summer Stefan Epp-Koop travelled to Kenya as part of a Canadian Foodgrains Bank learning tour, focused on the importance of agriculture in achieving numerous development goals: reducing hunger, increasing incomes, empowering women, adapting to a changing climate, and improving nutrition. Throughout the trip he visited farmers, government officials and researchers, exploring solutions that were being implemented in Kenya. One of the promising practices he saw was conservation agriculture, a combination of minimal- or no-till farming, crop rotation and the extensive use of mulching or cover crops.

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After a morning driving past field upon field of shrivelled, sparse maize it was obvious that something was different about this farm. As our bus came to a stop, I saw maize that was green, tall, and thick, nothing like what we had seen along our drive through central Kenya.

This particular farm belongs to Jane Wanjiko, who has wholeheartedly adopted the principles of conservation agriculture on her three-quarters of an acre farm. She is using grass and cornstalks to form a thick mulch on her field, showed us how she dug holes for her seeds rather than plowing, and talked about how she is rotating her crops.

As a result of these changes, she has increased her yield of maize from 32 kilograms last year to 990 kilograms today. Her bean production has also increased significantly. This year, she retained so much moisture in her soil after harvesting a crop of beans that she was able to plant an additional crop of maize – that lush field we saw when we arrived. Even though it had not rained in months, the soil under the mulch is still damp and the maize is thriving. Instead of two harvests this year, she is going to get three.

In the past, food aid was common in this area. It was necessary in the short term, but did not create long-term solutions. Now Jane feeds her family from her small farm and has saved enough money from selling maize to start a small café. Her neighbours – who once laughed at her new farming techniques – want to replicate what she is doing.

Julius Kitema shares a portion of his land with the Eka Moke Farmers Group for a shared field school (in the background). The land has just been prepared for planting.

Julius Kitema shares a portion of his land with the Eka Moke Farmers Group for a shared field school (in the background). The land has just been prepared for planting.
photo: Emily Cain/Canadian Foodgrains Bank

Just down the road, Lucas Makau, a young entrepreneur who started growing tomatoes on his half-acre plot, is also using conservation agriculture techniques. His field was lush with tomato plants bursting with fruit. He markets his tomatoes, a profitable cash crop, directly to Nairobi, about an hour away. Noting his success, his brother gave him his quarter-acre portion of the two-acre farm. Lucas is using the space to grow watermelons that he will also sell. He used his profits to buy a generator and pump to help with watering. In a few months, he plans to start growing passion fruit once he has harvested his tomatoes.

These are just two of the many farmers who we met who had begun using conservation agriculture to improve their farms. For smallholder farmers, often farming less than a few acres, increasing production is essential for reducing hunger and providing income to send kids to school or buy necessary household goods.

According to Saidi Mkomwa, the executive secretary of the African Conservation Tillage Network, conservation agriculture actually resembles traditional African agricultural techniques. It was only in the 1940s that deep plowing was introduced in Kenya and sold as the best way to do agriculture. But plowing actually led to soil depletion and turned potentially fertile soils into hardpan.

Farmers also report that the quantity and timing of the rains is changing. Conservation agriculture is giving farmers a buffer when rainfall is unpredictable. By using methods that capture rain when it falls and preserve it in the soil, farmers are less at risk from frequent droughts.

Still, changing practices requires changing mindsets and learning new skills. For decades, farmers were taught that soil needed to be plowed and that crops other than maize and beans were inferior. As a result, many farmers have not grown drought-resistant crops such as sorghum, sweet potatoes, or cassava. Another challenge is that the benefits of conservation agriculture are difficult to see immediately as it takes time to build healthy, moist soil.

To help make these changes easier, farmer groups are working together to facilitate training and learn with each other. The Eka Moke Farmers Group is a group of 20 smallholder farmers that comes together to learn new agricultural techniques and plant drought-resistant crops such as sorghum. The group meets every Friday at a shared field school to learn about minimal-tillage techniques and water-preservation methods such as zai pits, holes with a diameter of 15 to 50 centimetres that farmers plant in and collect rainwater.

The group has been around since 2014, and members have already noticed a difference. “Before you needed much land and would harvest almost nothing,” the chair Daniel Mungatu Nyamai said. “Now you need much less land.”

Crop yields, another farmer said, were up 50 per cent. As a result, poverty was less prevalent and the annual “hunger months” had been reduced from seven or eight to two or three.

Conservation agriculture has the potential to transform smallholder agriculture in Kenya. But it’s not a cure-all. There are still challenges, especially accessing markets and getting the necessary seeds and tools. Farmers are still at the mercy of the weather, even if they can grow more resistant crops or preserve water in the soil. Still, as both farmers and the group at Eka Moke changed their approach to farming, they created new entrepreneurial opportunities, kids are attending school, hunger is substantially reduced, and they no longer have to rely on food aid.

Here in Canada we can encourage more long-term solutions like this by pushing the Canadian government to support agriculture when it funds international development. You can let the Canadian government know that agriculture matters by sending a postcard to the prime minister. Find out more at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank website.

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