Growers turn previously parched area into food basket using new, sustainable technique
Before the residents of Kikule Village in Yatta, a semi-arid region in eastern Kenya, took to planting grass and some species of local trees across their degraded plots, much of the area was wasted and parched.
The better part of the village lay bare, with few patches of shrubs here and there, as deep gullies threaded across the undulating landscape for kilometres on end.
Meanwhile, pasture for livestock disappeared by the day as were the trees meant to put soil erosion and sun’s heat under check.
With surface run-offs constantly washing off top fertile soils from the farms into nearby streams during rainy seasons, many farmers were left struggling for meaningful harvest from the remaining hard puns.
Dominic Kivuvo, the chairman of Kikule village farmers, says the situation was a big headache for the locals who at the time did not have a solution.
“You could hardly see any grass around here. Rivers were also dry and water quite scarce,” he says.
A breakthrough for Kikule villagers would come over two years ago through an initiative known as Dryland Development Programme — a project of the Ministry of Agriculture and World Vision, an international non-governmental organisation.
Through the programme, Kikule farmers were taken through training on how to rehabilitate their farms by constructing terraces and growing grass and fast-maturing trees.
Because they had to reclaim large tracts of land, “seed bombing” the degraded farms was the quickest method of broadcasting the miniature grass and tree seeds.
Through this technique, encased seeds or seed balls are randomly thrown across the farms using a catapult or helicopter (in reforestation of large forests) then left to grow during rainfall.
The casing on the seeds is called biochar and is made from charcoal dust and cassava starch for binding. The charcoal dust mixture, when soaked in water, disintegrates to expose the seed for germination in ideal conditions. But it also helps retain a bit of the moisture around the seed.
The cassava dust has sugars and minerals that help boost seed germination.
Wasteland rehabilitation crusaders observe that seed balls can stay for long on the ground awaiting rains compared to direct seeds since the encasing protects the seeds from being blown away or being eaten by birds. When it rains, the dust dissolves and the seeds begin to grow.
“Farmers across the village came together and we started the initiative on a plot which acted as a demo area before farmers could replicate it on their own farms,” says Mr Kivuvo.
He says they got high quality and certified grass and sesbania seeds from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, Kiboko Centre.
With the seed bombs and the terraces, Kikule locals turned their degraded farms into a bread basket.
They now harvest the grass after which they bale and sell it at Sh100 per bale.
“During drought we sold a bale for as high as Sh400,” said Mr Kivuvo, adding that they discourage overstocking so as to conserve the soil.
They also designed six sand dams along the river beds which currently provide the locals with water for irrigation and household use.
Sunita Narain, an environmentalist and the managing director of Centre for Science and Environment, notes that lack of green cover increases desertification, adding that if farmers can improve they manage land and water, then they can shave off the worst impacts of climate change.
“By doing this, we mitigate greenhouse gases —growing trees that can sequester carbon dioxide; improving soil health that captures carbon dioxide, and most importantly, changing practices of agriculture and diets is reducing emissions of greenhouse gases,” said Ms Narain.
In 1994, the United Nations established the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), through which 122 countries committed to curb land degradation, the same way they did under the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon pollution.
These efforts involve working with farmers to safeguard arable land, repairing degraded land, and managing water supplies more effectively.
The UNCCD predicts that over 50 million people across the world will be forced to leave their homes by 2020 because their land has turned into desert. Each year, according to the agency, 12 million hectares of land are lost. That's land where 20 million tonnes of grain could have been grown.
Reports however indicate that Africa is the most adversely affected continent. It loses about 280 million tonnes of cereal crops from about 105 million hectares of croplands according to a UN agencies report.
The losses can, however, be prevented if soil erosion is curbed, experts say.
Kenya’s land degradation assessment report released in 2016 by the ministry of environment revealed that almost all the counties across the country are at the risk of one form of land degradation or the other.
“The problem is serious because high land degradation is likely to occur on about 61.4 percent the total area of Kenya, while very high degradation affects 27.2 percent of the land,” the survey reported.
The report however indicated that the ASALs, where the soils are highly erodible and combined with high intensity storms, were at risk of excessive degradation and soil erosion.
While it listed Samburu, Kitui, Garissa, Tana River, Mandera, Turkana, Marsabit, Baringo, West Pokot, Kajiado, Kilifi, Wajir and Makueni counties as the most affected, it further showed that even some relatively wetter zones also have higher risks for soil erosion, especially on steep slopes of Mt Kenya and the Aberdares, parts of Murang’a, Nyeri, Meru and Tharaka-Nithi counties.
Emmanuel Fondo, drylands development project manager at World Vision Kenya says the project aims to train communities to rehabilitate wasted lands through terracing, pits, and farmer- managed natural regeneration using seed balls.
The drylands development programmes look at buffering water catchment in sand dams and has so far put up 18 sand dams in Machakos County.
“We emphasise the use of integrated farming approach and enrichment planting by rehabilitating wasted lands,” he says
Mr Fondo observes that the rehabilitation effort and climate smart production has so far been a success in the region despite prolonged drought because the locals are diversifying into pasture and poultry farming.
“For Kikule area, we chose acacia since they are indigenous trees, and sesbania trees because they can easily support regeneration.
"The germination rate was about 75 per cent. And now any crop can grow here,” Mr Fondo noted.