When Musyoka Kivungi embarked on sinking a water pan at Ndithini Village in the sun-baked Makindu region in Makueni County he had no idea that he was laying a firm foundation for a robust agribusiness enterprise.
Mr Kivungi is part of a rapidly growing community of farmers who have turned around the arid region into a food basket through rain water harvesting.
"We sunk the farm pond in 2014 in a bid to meet our domestic water needs after relocating to a new settlement that had no piped water and rivers,” He told Enterprise while overseeing the harvesting of watermelons at his farm last weekend.
“Luckily, the water pan ended up tapping enough water to sustain a tomato crop on a quarter-acre plot. From that point we have not looked back."
"Today, we are able to cultivate various high value crops all year round on up to 10 acres after expanding the water pan, lining it with a polythene sheeting and covering it with a shade net to minimise water loss to the environment. We have specialised in watermelons, onions and garlic as they are profitable," he added.
Mr Kivungi had prepared five acres and planted water melons in November as maize farmers waited for the onset of the rainy season to grow the staple crop.
As has been the norm rather than the exception in the region recently, the rainfall started a month late. The water melon crop matured as those practicing rain-fed agriculture in the sun-baked neighbourhood clung on fading hope that the rains would return to take their stressed maize and beans crops to maturity.
To avoid exhausting the soil, Mr Kivungi practices crop rotation and manuring. Water from the dam is pumped into an elaborate drip irrigation system.
“We opted for drip irrigation rather than using furrows so that we conserve water”.
He sells the produce at the farm gate.
"A kilo of watermelons goes for between Sh20 and Sh30 depending on market forces," he said.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, he exported 20 tonnes of the fruits to Tanzania.
he uses income from the farm to supplement the salary he draws at the county government where he is the chief officer at the Department of Devolution.
Mr Kivungi's success story is replicated across the county where the government and non-governmental organisations have been aggressively promoting rain water harvesting as a way of building resilience against climate change. The county government has rolled out the installation of miter drainage systems for harvesting rainwater from the roads across the county and has been encouraging communities neighboring the roads to set up farm ponds.
In addition to sinking hundreds of earth dams and sand dams which provide rural and urban communities with water for domestic use and micro irrigation, the county government has created an affordable fund dubbed Tetheka Fund from where individuals and organised groups can borrow to sink water pans and bought a specialised excavator machine for sinking the pans at affordable rates.
A spot check by Enterprise revealed that most of the smallholder farmers who have installed ponds were motivated after visiting Yatta in Machakos County where Bishop Titus Masika champions rain water harvesting and irrigation as a sustainable means of lifting communities from poverty. Each household in the arid region owns at least two farm ponds and grows assorted fast maturing high value crops all year round.
The success of the model farms saw the Makueni County government strike a deal with Mr Masika in 2014 which has seen dozens of Makueni farmers visit the Yatta model farms over the years to benchmark on rain water-harvesting and the promise of micro irrigation.
"To stop the dependence on food aid, farmers should stop relying on rainfall which is erratic. Instead, every household should sink a water pan to harvest rain water for irrigating at least one acre of high value crops such as vegetables,” Bishop Masika says.
His converts in Makueni include John Nzuna, a resident of Machinery village. He grows maize throughout the year using water from an earth dam set up near his homestead.
"Food insecurity is a thing of the past here. We supply fresh vegetables to Machinery Township," he says.
To address the twin problems of food insecurity and unemployment among young people, the government banks on micro irrigation hinged on rain water harvesting to spur sustainable economic development across the country.
The Ministry of Water projects that Ukambani will become the country’s food basket following the ongoing construction of Sh 64 billion Thwake Dam on the border of Kitui and Makueni counties. Upon completion the dam is expected to support the irrigation of 10,000 acres of farmland in the two arid counties.