How Farmers in Kenya Are Beating The Effects of Drought

As the effects of drought continue stifling crop and livestock production across Kenya, some farmers in the worse affected areas have managed to beat this scourge. Having adopted small-scale dryland farming technologies, these farmers are able to continue feeding their families with produce from their farms. 

Christine Nthenya Mutua is not fazed by the current drought. While many of her neighbours wait for relief assistance, she still has grain to sell, a cow that gives her some milk, and a bull that brings income from ploughing land.

Christine lives in Kithuki village in Makueni County, a marginal agricultural county that has not been spared by the drought. Most farmers rely on rain-fed agriculture while keeping a few animals.

In this region WFP supports over 47,000 people through asset creation activities aimed at strengthening communities’ resilience to climactic shock.  WFP provides people with a monthly food ration in return for participation in activities promoting dryland farming technologies such as zai pits, sunken beds, terraces and farm ponds.

Farm ponds

Christine and her husband Bernard Mutua Nguku are among about 200 farmers in Makueni County who have adopted the use of farm ponds for crop irrigation. This water harvesting technology has proved to be climate resilient.

“Before we dug the farm pond, we used to struggle like everyone else. It was difficult putting food on the table let alone meeting other family needs,” said Christine. “Getting a decent harvest was a matter of luck.”

Christine and Bernard donated a section of their farm for use as a demonstration plot. Working in groups of five to 10, the farmers in Kithuki village developed a farm pond with a capacity of 250,000 litres or 250 cubic metres. A farm pond this size is sufficient to water high value horticultural crops on a quarter of a hectare till maturity, which takes about three-months.

“After a little rain, the pond collected enough water allowing us to water crops to maturity. The harvest was impressive and this motivated me to dig a second water pond.”

Curbing water loss

Farm ponds often lose water quickly if they are not lined and if left uncovered.

“We are working with partners and farmers to standardise the design, construction and use of farm ponds to support agricultural enterprises. Some of the improvements include silt traps to avoid clogging, lining to stop seepage, and covering with shade nets to cut evaporation and maintenance costs,” explained Charles Songok, Policy Programme Officer with WFP.

Through WFP-supported asset creation activities, Christine and Bernard received a plastic sheet for lining her second pond and a shade net for a roof.

Her farm pond filled up halfway during the October-December rains and she estimates that the remaining water could last till the onset of the long rains.

Surplus

“The secret to my success is this farm pond. With just the little rains that we received late last year, I still have enough water left to irrigate my tomatoes and onions,” said Christine.

Using a hand pump, Christine draws water from the covered farm pond into an elevated tank. The water flows by gravity through the drip lines to the farm where she is growing tomatoes, kale and onions.

“I opted for tomatoes because they fetch more money in the market,” she said. “I use the sukuma wiki (kale) for my family’s meals, but still, there is plenty. I take some to the market. I don’t buy vegetables anymore,” said Christine proudly.

Creating a better life

In just four years, Christine and her husband have managed to turn their luck around thanks to the dryland farming techniques. Their first windfall came about when they sold hay from a plot of pasture making about 100,000 Kenyan shillings (US$ 1,000). With this new cash inflow, they bought a bull, a tank to store roof water for domestic use, and managed to improve their house.

“We rely on this farm for all our needs, including paying school fees,” said Bernard. “My wife has been active in the asset creation activities, and now I see it pays off. I’m supporting her work.”

Christine is still part of the asset creation activities, but says that now she feels self-sufficient.

“I would like to offer my place to a more needy family. I’m grateful that this project has brought us out of dependency to a level where we can support others,” she said.

Through this project, Christine was also trained on the benefits of group savings and is now a member of a village savings and loan group, where she can access credit at a very low interest rate to expand and sustain her farm enterprise.

“We eat better and more nutritional foods than before. We couldn’t afford vegetables on a daily basis, but now I go to the market to sell, not to buy.”