Farmers finding hope in regenerative agriculture


A model kitchen garden at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives grounds. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Emerging from the recent enhanced rainfall, much of the expansive Kitui County remains green, but signs of stress are already evident. Temperatures rise to as high as 37 degrees Celsius making it untenable to work in the fields beyond mid-morning. Kitui is a semi-arid region in the larger eastern region of Kenya.

Amid what looks like a disheartening situation, a project known as Strengthening Regenerative Agriculture in Kenya (STRAK) is working to change the story through a range of simple but transformative innovations and technologies. A project of AGRA with funding from IKEA Foundation, STRAK currently works with farmers in four counties namely, Kitui, Makueni, Tharaka Nithi and Embu, which have vast but dry lands.

The concept of regenerative agriculture starts with the identification of drought-tolerant crops that have the capacity to do well in harsh climatic conditions with the support of simple but transformative innovations.

AGRA and its partners, Farm Africa, and Cereal Growers Association (CGA) are currently promoting cereals, primarily white sorghum, and pearl millet; legumes such as green grams, pigeon peas, cowpeas, varieties of beans as well as fruit trees such as mangoes and oranges. Also being prioritised are kitchen gardens for nutritional diversity. The kitchen gardens feature local vegetables and fruits such as pumpkins.

The second aspect of regenerative agriculture revolves around land preparation. The practice promotes minimum or zero tillage to preserve soil moisture and nutrients. In contrast to intensive tillage, minimum tillage does not significantly manipulate the soil, does not turn it over, minimises loss of moisture through evaporation and strives to preserve its vital qualities for maximum crop production.

Farmers practising regenerative agriculture deploy a special plough known as a ripper. It is an ox or tractor-drawn implement that tills only the line where the seed or seedling is to be planted leaving the space in between undisturbed. Those without a ripper may use a basic hoe or jembe especially if their acreage is small.

Alongside minimum tillage is the use of mulching, intercropping with cover crops such as legumes, and land terracing, an age-old practice designed to slow down soil erosion and nutrients on slopes.

The other key component is the use of certified seeds which possess improved traits such as better yields, pest resistance, drought tolerance and herbicide tolerance. Much as it is tempting for farmers to use seeds from their own farms due to lower cost, years of evidential research suggest the result of doing so could be disappointing, especially given the multiple contaminations in the environment.

The need for regenerative agriculture is buttressed by the devastating effects of climate change witnessed in the unpredictable weather patterns which often defy traditional trends. As a result, farmers are also encouraged to practice agroforestry by planting trees including fruits.

Trees can be a useful source of timber, fruit, nuts, and other commercial products, which can supplement incomes and diets cushioning families where crop fails.

Many farmers have reported being stuck with produce which they can't sell due to limited access to market. To get around this gap, STRAK champions a concept known as Village Based Advisors (VBA) model. A typical VBA can manage between 150 to 200 farmers, a strong network that collaborates to produce drought-tolerant crops that are in high demand.

There is evidence that regenerative agriculture is working and hence a strong case for scaling and replication.

The writer is AGRA Kenya country director.

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