Food for the future: helping farmers in Kenya adapt to the climate crisis

The harsh midday sun beats down on the withering pawpaw plants in Maureen Adhiambo’s patch of land.

The villagers in Kamenya have not seen rain for months, and when it does come, the soil is too dry and loose to retain any of the moisture or nutrients. Last year Adhiambo saw her maize dry up long before it could mature. Like many farmers in the Homa Bay region, on the south bank of Kenya’s Lake Victoria, she is staring at yet another cycle of crop failure.

“Farming has been frustrating for us,” says Adhiambo, in the shade of a thirsty-looking banana plant. “Look at my neighbours’ farms. They too will harvest very little, if any. Changing weather patterns and poor soils have made it difficult to make a decent living out of farming.”

To support her family, the mother of three had moved to the neighbouring county of Migori in 2016 for a job selling life insurance. But that did not fare well and she went home a year later to take another shot at farming.

She planted beans, onions and other vegetables in the hope that the rains due from March to May would arrive on time, but they did not. She tried again in October but the short rainy season failed too. She also lost her 13,000 Kenyan shillings (£84) investment. Frustrated, she decided to try her hand at poultry keeping.

About 10km from Adhiambo’s home, in Seka village, 35-year-old Dominic Owuor tends a healthy crop of kale while on a nearby piece of land, tomato plants are thriving. His seven acres, leased from his neighbours, contrast sharply with Adhiambo’s. Here, the soils have a heavier water and nutrient retention ratio, thanks to water that Owuor pumps from Lake Victoria. However, he hasn’t had an easy time switching from paid employment to farming either.

After graduating, Owuor took up teaching but he left in 2013 to work in the financial sector before going into full-time farming in 2018.

“I tried my hand at farming while still employed, hoping to contribute to food security and provide employment to young people. But I knew little about agribusiness and the kind of plants that can withstand deteriorating weather patterns. I also employed casual labourers who weren’t well versed in farming either. Out of my initial investment of 100,000 Kenyan shillings, I barely managed half of that in returns,” he says.

Farming around Lake Victoria is a hit and miss affair. They have seen the impact of a changing climate as the lake’s water level has risen and swallowed hundreds of acres of land. For those on higher ground, prolonged droughts have killed off young crops. The erratic climate and poor knowledge of viable agricultural practices have devastated food security and economic prospects for people who relied on fishing.

According to the World Bank Group climate change action plan 2016-2020, the world will need to produce 50% more food by 2050 but estimates that with current practices, there will be a 40% water shortfall between demand and available supply.

“Climate-smart land use, applied across the agricultural, forestry, fisheries, and conservation sectors, can increase food production and farmers’ income while offering large opportunities for climate resilience,” says its report.

Adapting to the vagaries of an adverse climate is a steep learning curve for small-scale farmers. Adhiambo and Owuor benefited from training offered by UK organisation Practical Action, which assists smallholders to make a living while protecting their environment.

Since Owuor switched from maize crops to horticulture, his revenues have grown to 250,000 shillings a month. “Even after deducting labour, farm inputs and marketing costs, I am happy with what I get. Irrigation-fed horticulture puts money in your pocket all year round unlike food crops that depend on an uncertain weather pattern,” he says.

Adhiambo took up poultry farming with 17 chicks. Two years ago, she and her husband attended Practical Action-sponsored training to learn about poultry disease management, vaccination and housing. They also learned how to feed red worms with organic waste that are a rich source of protein for the birds.

“I knew nothing about poultry when I started but since the training I have multiplied the birds and increased my earnings. I’m also taking eggs to the hatchery for more stock. Poultry works better for me than crop farming,” says Adhiambo.

Jim Ouko, the youth and livelihood adviser at Practical Action, says changing rain patterns, high irrigation costs, new pests and diseases have all lowered food production while flash floods have destroyed crops and displaced farmers. “Prolonged droughts or severe flooding contribute to high costs of available food items. Farmers need to adopt climate-resilient farming practices … while cultivating pest-resistant African leafy vegetables.”

Like Adhiambo, Merceline Akinyi, a mother of two from Nyakach, Kisumu, also got frustrated after losing maize crops. She learned how to rotate her crops to keep pests at bay and now her land is divided into paddocks where she grows vegetables using water from shallow wells within her compound. “I decided I will no longer wait for the rains,” says Akinyi. “Before 2010, I used to plant food crops and get nothing due to poor rains. I remember spending 7,000 shillings to prepare and plant in my one-acre farm and getting not more than 5,000 shillings in return, a financial loss and reduced food security. With water nearby, I can grow vegetables all year round. People in my area are not food-secure and come to my home to learn about modern ways of farming,” she says.

The training has also attracted young people who previously had no interest in growing food. At a farm next to Owuor’s, 29-year-old Dedan Odhiambo is sorting out freshly-picked tomatoes. He is also a teacher who took up farming after failing to find a job. “I learned farming under Owuor’s wings,” he says. “He encouraged me to lease an acre of land and helped me identify a hybrid tomato variety that is bacteria and wilt-resistant. You can see the results.”

As the Food and Agriculture Organization warns that 690 million people are facing hunger, the farmers of Lake Victoria are working to buck the trend with climate-smart agriculture – one acre at a time.

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