How crop growers are planting seeds of hope in Turkana

Peter Epakan
Peter Epakan on his farm at Turkwel village, Turkana County. PHOTO | SAMMY LUTTA 

Peter Epakan, a resident of Turkwel village in Loima Sub County, Turkana County, would have been among 30,000 pastoralists who have crossed over to neighbouring Uganda for pasture and water for their livestock following the current devastating drought.

Also, if he could be at his home together with his two wives and eight children, he would be among the 608,000 people in need of frequent relief food supplies from the county government, relief agencies and well-wishers.

Turkana County is predominantly a pastoral region where cycles of drought has yet to change the people's tradition of keeping many livestock for prestige despite the animals being wiped out when rains delay due to climate change, leaving them vulnerable.

Mr Epakan, however, is no longer left in a state of hopelessness when drought strikes as his crop farm provides him with a crucial cushion.

He cultivated interest in farming after living in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County for nine years, working as a tractor driver ploughing hundreds of acres.


"Many farmers I worked for had not gone to school and they were not employed but through farming, they were able to feed their families. All their children were in good schools and were living healthy lives," he says as he harvests watermelon with a broad smile due to its big size.

His one acre farm — nestled among tall acacia trees, watermelon and tomatoes ready for market — stands out like an oasis in a desert as it is surrounded by a vast bare but arable land.

Some places have scattered dry shrubs that goats and sheep feed on as owners still pray for rains.

"I was motivated to do farming as the ingredients for success are there — arable land and River Turkwel nearby,” says Mr Epakan.

“Development partners have been encouraging people here to practise irrigation farming as an alternative source of livelihood."

For the past two years, through guidance of extension officers he has been planting collard greens (sukuma wiki), tomatoes, spinach, water melon and various fruit trees for family consumption and to sell to villagers around before. But now he focuses on tomatoes and watermelons due to high demand from hotels in Lodwar town.

On a Monday at 8am Enterprise finds him harvesting 75-day-old ripe watermelons. On this day he is targeting to transport 200 kilos using three motorbikes to Lodwar, 30km away, and he expects a kilo to fetch him Sh40.

He notes that the challenge he faces is the cost of producing watermelon is high as the canals he relies on to supply water from River Turkwel are silted.

His other main challenge is boosting infrastructure to ensure water is easily channeled to the farms.

Mr Epakan is however undeterred and sees huge agricultural potential of the area. This is why he has taken the initiative to teach the residents about farming. Together they have formed a group called Awes Group with their main focus being to transform Turkwel into a food basket.

More than 100km away from Turkwel is Stephen Ekai, 31, a farmer at Katilu in Turkana South Sub County.

Mr Ekai says that in 1999 when he was 15 years old, one of the worst droughts that the county had ever experienced occurred. Driven by despair, many people migrated from their homes after the drought killed most of their livestock.

“My family was among those that migrated to Kitale in Trans Nzoia County and worked on farms for survival,” he tells Enterprise.

The drought marked an important turning point in their lives.

"My family started developing an interest in farming. We came back and began with kitchen garden and gradually expanded and now we own an acre farm where we plant tomatoes and watermelon,” Mr Ekai says, adding that they get water from River Turkwel.

The father of two as shifted entirely to crop farming with pastoralism now a thing of the past. The fact that the area is prone to banditry attacks and cattle theft drove him to abandon livestock keeping altogether.

Crop farming has now made him self-reliant, as he is able to pay school fees for his children besides meeting other critical expenses such as medical.

He said that in 2014 he joined hands with 15 youth passionate in farming and formed a group called The Greens of Turkana which practices horticulture farming. The group, he says, has been gradually changing the face of farming in Turkana.

Despite achieving notable milestone in crop farming, the group says they still encounter hurdles. For instance, they are currently seeking support to ensure a cost-effective way to water their farms. Use of fuel generators is costing them dearly.

Mr Ekai and his group of farming enthusiasts also want the county government and other players to provide frequent extension services and reliable pesticides for the highly destructive pests and insects such as Tuta absoluta.

Mr Aletia says the county government is working with farmers and organisations to promote agriculture in its plan to increase food accessibility and tackle high levels of malnutrition.

He says production of diversified and sufficient food in the region is one of the objectives of the county.

He adds that villagers in Turkana County with poor access to nutrition will benefit from the Improved Approach to Community-based Nutrition in Turkana (IMPACT) Program. The five-year programme worth $5 million is funded by the Bayer Fund, the philanthropic arm of the Bayer Corporation and implemented by Africare – an agency, which works to improve the quality of life for people in Africa.

“The initiative aims to improve access to quality health services and increase knowledge for prevention and treatment for malnutrition; and increase household access, availability and consumption of diversified and nutrient-rich food,” says Mr Aletia adding that the rising number of people embracing crop farming will go a long way in supplementing such efforts targeting to improve nutrition.

The county government, he notes is also working to provide farmers with the necessary support, including provision of water to boost farming, and ultimately livelihoods and health of the residents.

“…Africare will increase the capacity of health facilities to screen and treat children diagnosed with acute malnutrition, educate key community leaders and mothers on nutrition for long-term behavioural change, establish household and communal gardens, and ensure access to quality water through the restoration and construction of wells and boreholes,” says Dominic Godana, Chief of Party, IMPACT Program.

Mr Aletia noted that farmers with unreliable sources of water to support their farming activities will benefit from Africare’s construction of 22 boreholes and rehabilitation of 8 boreholes to increase access to water.