The five sacks of beans and corn in the granary of Joyce Ngumbao’s and Pius Kisumu’s Kenyan farm are like money in the bank — a farmer’s safety net amid a changing climate. The chickens in the nearby coop also add to their financial security when the rains don’t come.
The beans and corn are what remain in January from a prosperous 2018 summer harvest on the family’s farm, located in the semi-arid region of Makueni County, southeast of the capital city of Nairobi.
By using conservation agriculture, a way of farming that MCC and partner Utooni Development Organization (UDO) are promoting to increase crop production in drier conditions, Ngumbao and Kisumu were able to produce and save more crops than most farmers in their area that year.
That bounty, combined with their chicken raising, has turned out to be essential for Ngumbao, Kisumu and their five children in 2019.
The rains that were supposed to fall in November and December 2018 didn’t come until January and only lasted one month. The long rainy season, from March to May, became a June-only rainy season. Both harvests were sparse.
In a region where farmers and herders and their ancestors based their livelihoods on predictable rainy seasons, the pattern no longer holds.
Ever since 2010, rains have not been reliable, says Amos Meitiak Koitee, senior field officer for Maasai Integrated Development Initiatives (MIDI), an MCC partner that works with Maasai communities in Kajiado County in the Rift Valley. “When it comes, it is sporadic. It rains one place, but the other is dry.”
Droughts, like one in 2017 that destroyed entire herds of cows owned by Maasai farmers, are becoming more common, Koitee says. “Before, every 10 years there was a drought. Now it’s every five, even three years. Before the community recovers, another drought comes.”
Before the community recovers, another drought comes.”
- Amos Meitiak Koitee
In contrast, rain also now comes in torrents instead of several hours of steady precipitation. In 2018, a flash flood washed away a concrete dam and livestock in Kajiado.
To help farmers find new ways to cope with the impact of climate change, MCC supports agriculture projects of MIDI and UDO. Funding for UDO’s work comes from MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. MCC has supported MIDI’s work over the years, including through projects in partnership with Growing Hope Globally (formerly Foods Resource Bank).
Staff from the two Kenyan organizations are teaching farmers to use conservation agriculture, which emphasizes soil cover, minimum soil disturbance and crop rotation. They highlight the importance of diversifying livestock and storing crops.
It’s a message that especially resonates with women, who in both Maasai and other communities are most likely to grow food and be expected to provide food for their children.
In Maasai communities in the dry season or during droughts, men travel with herds of cattle to look for food and water. Women and children remain at home, often facing hunger or malnutrition.
Increasing numbers of Maasai families struggle to support their herds at home even during rainy seasons. Ever since the government subdivided communal Maasai land in 1982, families have continued to parcel their land among their children and grandchildren or to sell portions of their farm until it is no longer big enough to sustain large herds.
To support the wellbeing of Maasai families, MIDI staff are encouraging families to reduce the number of cattle they own, to purchase dairy cows that produce more milk, to grow vegetables, to preserve hay and to raise small animals, like chickens or goats.
This way they can stay on their farms, have food year-round and better cope with the droughts.
“The reason why my cow is alive during the drought is because I acquired the knowledge to preserve hay when it is in plenty,” says Damaris Nadupoi, a single mother who lives in the Oloshoibor region. She has been preserving dried elephant grass in her shed since MIDI first taught her how in 2016.
“During the drought, my neighbours who had big herds had to move. Still after moving, their livestock have died. Mine, here, are still alive during the drought season up until today,” says Nadupoi. She has two dairy cows that have produced two calves and up to 1.3 gallons of milk a day that she can sell.
During the drought, my neighbours who had big herds had to move. Still after moving, their livestock have died. Mine, here, are still alive during the drought season up until today.”
- Damaris Nadupoi
Following MIDI’s advice, she planted fruit trees and a variety of crops from pumpkins to tomatoes. She rotates her crops to keep nutrients in the soil and limit pests. She’s currently experimenting with a moist garden — a garden lined with plastic to prevent the water from dissipating into the ground.
“The big benefit is we produce food here,” Nadupoi says. “That means we are food secure at the family levels. The surplus we sell and use it to send our children to school or do some construction here, so we don’t need to go out begging or looking for something to eat.”
Ngumbao and Kisumu used their surplus mung beans, grown using conservation agriculture techniques, to pay most of their teenagers’ school fees, and they sold other produce to buy cement for their house floors. They bought 10 chickens to boost the flock that UDO convinced Ngumbao to start in 2016 to provide an income source other than crops.
Ngumbao, who does most of the field work, says conservation agriculture makes a big difference in her ability to farm in dry conditions.
In 2018, she harvested 800 pounds of dried corn (maize) from one acre of land that she nurtured with conservation agriculture techniques over the past three years. On her other three acres, planted with the conventional method of plowing, scattering and covering seeds, she harvested only 200 pounds.
On a January day in 2019, rich green cornstalks that were planted using conservation agriculture reach higher than her head, with other crops growing in between. The field that was planted using traditional techniques is more red soil than corn, with stalks that barely reach her waist.
Without sufficient rain, even the corn that thrived in January never matured enough to become food — the stalks were used as soil cover instead. But, UDO staff note, Ngumbao was able to harvest legumes and cassava, where neighbours who didn’t use conservation agriculture harvested nothing.
She hopes to devote more land to conservation agriculture, but it takes much more time to plant the seeds one by one, deep into the ground with decomposed manure. Plowing is faster.
“It is our wish that on all the farm we could do conservation agriculture,” says Ngumbao. “With conservation agriculture you are assured of harvest even with little rain.”