Farmers seek solutions amid climate change crisis

Smart agricultural techniques reap rich dividends in Kenya

Richard Ngunga, a retired teacher born and raised in a Kenyan village, has fond memories of his childhood.

He recalls the tall evergreen trees in the area, large herds of healthy livestock, the nearby Makindu River, farmers irrigating their land during the dry season and abundant food supplies.

"When I was growing up in Makongeni, Makueni county, there were very few people in the village," said Ngunga, 62, standing on his farm as a train traveled just a few hundred meters away toward Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, from the coastal city of Mombasa.

About 30 years ago, there was abundant rainfall in the area and bumper harvests were the norm.

Today, the devastating impact of climate change is all too apparent. The Makindu River is completely dry, the land is dusty, water is scarce, few tall trees grow and hardly any herds of livestock can be seen. Frustration is etched on the villagers' faces as most of them struggle to put food on the table.

In addition, farming is no longer a reliable source of income due to unpredictable rainy seasons and increasingly severe droughts.

Ngunga wants locals to stop felling trees to burn charcoal, and instead plant more trees and invest in alternative sources of fuel.

The State of the Climate in Africa 2022 report published in September by the World Meteorological Organization said that while the continent is responsible for only a fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is suffering disproportionately from climate change.

Last year, more than 110 million people in Africa were directly affected by meteorological-, climate- and water-related hazards, resulting in economic losses of more than $8.5 billion, the report said.

Some 5,000 fatalities were also reported, with 48 percent of them due to drought and 43 percent related to flooding.

Since 2020, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have experienced the worst drought in 40 years, following five consecutive failed rainy seasons.

The drought left 3.5 million Kenyans living in arid and semiarid counties facing acute food insecurity, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. The drought also killed 2.6 million livestock in rural areas.

About a 10-minute drive from Makongeni, Raphael Munyao shared similar observations with Ngunga at Kasioni village. Munyao attributes the situation in the area to deforestation, a rising population, greenhouse gas emissions and high temperatures.

"Unlike several years ago, when we harvested sufficient crops for consumption, and sold the surplus, we now have to buy our food, most of which is imported and very expensive," Munyao said.

He added that villagers now walk about 5 kilometers to access a borehole, because the supply of tap water from a spring is strictly rationed due to falling water levels.

Munyao said many families are unable to educate their children past high school due to a lack of finances, with many of them depending on agriculture for a living.

Ngunga is among the lucky few in the community, as he managed to sink a borehole last year to mitigate the challenges posed by climate change.

His green compound looks totally different to those of his neighbors'-clear evidence of the transformational benefits of a reliable water supply. Ngunga has grown a variety of vegetables, which he sells at the market in Makindu, and he has also planted bananas, maize, pawpaws and legumes, and farms fish.

High demand

Ngunga wants young people from his village, most of whom have relocated to major cities, to consider investing in irrigated agriculture by sinking boreholes.

"The soil is fertile and the demand for food is always high," he said.

Those unable to afford to invest in boreholes in the area are turning to climate-smart agriculture to improve their yields, thanks to Phoebe Mwangangi, who trains farmers in this technique.

A smallholder farmer in the area, Mwangangi founded the Poverty Alleviation Resource Center, a community-based organization. She was trained by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, an international organization that conducts agricultural research for rural development.

She also instructs farmers on climate change mitigation measures to help them harvest their crops when there is minimal rainfall.

Mwangangi, who is currently working with six groups of farmers, said, "Farmers visit our demonstration farms to learn how to prepare the land, how to plant crops, and the type of crops to plant. We then encourage them to practice what they have learned at the center on their own farms."

She added that climate-smart agricultural practices and innovative methods are aimed at conserving water and soil.

These methods include forming rip lines — a low-tech system of harvesting rainwater.

A tractor digs rip lines 30 centimeters deep to loosen the soil. Farmers then apply manure to the rip lines before planting crops in them. The manure in the soil retains water so that crops can survive for up to three weeks in the absence of rain.

Mwangangi said: "We cause minimum disturbance to the soil. When rip lines are formed, an area is left between the two lines, in which we perform shallow weeding. We don't dig very deep so that the soil remains largely intact."

Farmers also dig Zai pits to plant seeds. The pits are either 60 square centimeters or 90 sq cm, 30 cm deep and 60 cm to 90 cm apart.

A 60-sq-cm Zai pit holds five maize seeds, while a 90-sq-cm one holds nine seeds.

Topsoil from a pit is mixed with organic manure, which is used to fill the pit to increase soil fertility and the capacity of the soil to retain water.

As a result, the pits address the issues of infertile soil, land degradation, and moisture retention, making arid and semiarid land more productive.

At Makongeni village, farmers struggled to hide their excitement as Mwangangi instructed them on digging Zai pits. The farmers, who are members of the Aimi me Bidii Self Help Group, promised to prepare at least 20 pits before the upcoming rainy season.

The group, which is headed by Petronilla Ngunga, wife of Richard Ngunga, has 75 members and wants to raise the number to 100.

"We aim to ensure that every family in the village is self-reliant in terms of harvesting enough food for consumption. We are located within a town, and as our farms are small, we want to maximize yields," said Petronilla Ngunga, who retired last year as a teacher.

Despite having the advantage of a borehole on her land, and engaging in irrigated agriculture, she is committed to encouraging her neighbors to farm — even giving them space to plant on her land. "I like to help people, and want to see them improve their livelihoods," she said.

After attending a training session on digging Zai pits, Kambua Andrew, a smallholder farmer from Manyani village, and mother of nine, was enthused by the idea. She paid one of her neighbors the equivalent of $13.47 to help dig the pits on her small piece of land.

"I hope that by using this innovative farming method, I will be able to harvest enough food to see my family through the forthcoming rainy season," she said.

Last season, she only managed to harvest 20 kilograms of cowpeas on her small farm, while maize and bean crops dried up due to inadequate rainfall.

Farmers are also being encouraged to harvest surface runoff by investing in farm ponds and reservoirs to water their livestock and grow vegetables during the dry season. Surface runoff is the water flow that occurs when soil is saturated, and excess water from rain, meltwater or other sources flows over the land.

Another way of mitigating climate change is to plant a variety of drought-resistant crops such as green grams (a species of legumes), sorghum, cowpeas and pearl millet.

Phoebe Mwangangi said yields have increased as a result of adopting the climate-smart system of farming.

The Uithi Museo Self Help Group is one of the beneficiaries of climate-smart agricultural training. The group has 50 members and a piece of land that acts as a demonstration farm. On his or her own farm, each member carries out the instruction they receive.

They practice digging rip lines to a depth of 15-30 cm, and grow a variety of drought-resistant crops such as cowpeas, sorghum, pearl millet, pigeon peas and green grams to spread climate change risks. Members of the group have also been instructed on cooking these crops for nutritional purposes.

Training praised

China Daily reporters who visited the group were served food prepared from pearl millet and sorghum.

Agnes Nzomo, the group's chairwoman, said, "We are grateful that through our training we have learned to mitigate climate change and eradicate poverty, as well as add value to crops by learning different ways to prepare them."

She said plans are underway to plant Melia volkensii — deciduous drought-tolerant trees that produce high-quality timber resistant to termites. These trees, as well as grass, will be planted on farms for commercial purposes. Returns will be used to improve the group or for use in other projects.

Farmers in Makindu said they hoped the October-December rainy season would be successful.

The Kenya Meteorological Department said in its seasonal forecast that the entire country is likely to experience increased rainfall, with a higher chance of rain in eastern areas during this period.

The increased rainfall will be driven by warmer than average sea surface temperatures over the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, indicating the presence of El Nino conditions, the department said.

When China Daily visited Makindu four weeks later on Oct 23, the area had not received any rainfall, despite rain falling in most parts of the country, including some areas neighboring Makindu.

Rain finally started falling on Friday. "Though it was delayed, we are optimistic that the season will be successful," Phoebe Mwangangi said in a phone call on Saturday.

She and several other farmers have already dug Zai pits and rip lines on their farms and are now planting seeds.