4-H finds fertile ground to tackle food security

Vertical gardens and composting are among the 4-H projects to help African families produce their own food

Part of the delegation from Kenya stops for a photo during sustainable agriculture and food security day at the Global 4-H Summit.

North American 4-H may have branched into everything from babysitting to robotics, but elsewhere it’s still back to the basics — producing enough food for the family.

Shannon Benner, CEO of 4-H Canada and chair of the Global 4-H Network, estimates that about 60 per cent of programs worldwide are focused on agriculture or food security. Food security is also high among the global network’s priorities, combined with sustainable agriculture to form one of the organization’s four “pillars” of youth leadership.

Kenya is among those countries where 4-H has taken a role in food security.

The country is expected to face “atypical high food insecurity” due to drought in 2017, according to the United States Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Already suffering from three years of unreliable rains, the failure of last year’s “short rains” season between October and December is expected to cut maize production by up to 70 per cent below average.

In March, The United Nation’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that over 2.7 million Kenyans were food insecure, with that number expected to reach four million by April.

Vertical gardens

In the midst of this concern, school-based 4-H clubs are carrying on with projects such as multi-storey vertical gardens, said Neema Mutemi, one of the Kenyan delegation at the recent Global 4-H Summit in Ottawa.

“If they water the top level of the garden, the water goes down into the second level and the third level… they design the gardens themselves and construct them, so they learn skills to innovate from that level,” she said.

Mutemi said such vertical gardens have popped up in low-income urban areas in Kenya, part of the “enterprise gardens” that each club is required to develop. Past “gardens” have focused on animal husbandry or other topics. One of the more unique ideas introduced silkworm harvest.

“We try as much as possible to encourage them to develop the activities incrementally, so every year we want to see some progress,” Mutemi said. “They should be doing something different than what they did in the previous year.”

Top projects are chosen by 4-H Kenya, with winning club members sent to tour a university agriculture department.

In 2016, 4-H Kenya signed an agreement with Njoro’s Egerton University to attach agriculture students with local clubs throughout the summer. The clubs will test agricultural innovations introduced by the students and, if successful, those same projects will be published and introduced to local communities.

Farmers in select regions of Kenya will also have more access to weather data as a result of 4-H this year, Mutemi said. A partnership with Globe Kenya and the Regional Centre for Mapping Resources for Development has provided five weather stations to be distributed to member schools.

“The good thing is that one weather station serves a radius of 10 kilometres, so all the schools within that radius are able to monitor online what the weather patterns are within the same ecosystem,” Mutemi said.

Testing the waters in Burundi

Washington State University Extension hopes 4-H will be similarly successful in Burundi, where the United Nations says over 417,000 have fled to avoid civic unrest since 2015. The violence has led Transport Canada to advise against all travel to the east African nation.

The university has partnered with staff in Burundi and non-profit organization Trauma, Healing and Reconciliation Services (T.H.A.R.S.) to establish a school-based gardening program.

“They wanted to integrate a feeding system within the school program,” said Lauren Hrncirik, a University of Washington Extension specialist. “There wasn’t a school feeding system. Nutrition is, obviously, one of the highest needs for the young children there in school and so this was a way to not only incorporate 4-H and life and livelihood skill development, but also help them develop a school feeding program and teach some home gardening skills.”

The program’s curriculum was developed by USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It includes concepts of composting, variety selection, field planning and other techniques to increase efficiency and yield.

Four schools have signed on with the gardening program since it was introduced in 2016 while Hrncirik and her colleague, Mary Katherine Deen, hope to eventually expand to all eight schools where T.H.A.R.S. has a presence.

“I think the thing that we’re doing that’s really unique is that I have been to visit Burundi, but we as an organization have never been to Burundi to tell them how to do 4-H. It’s definitely coming from the ground up,” Deen said.

About the author


Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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