In the remote area of Katilu, Turkana South, Josephine Lochi guards tens of watermelons that her colleagues are harvesting from a farm close by. She is sitting under a thorn tree, which barely has enough shade to shield her from the scorching sun.
It took us six hours to arrive at the farm from Lodwar town through the winding Lokichar road and our mission was to evaluate the impact of the Katilu Irrigation Scheme.
Successfully, we traversed the rough terrain, a journey made bearable by the reliable 4x4 car we had sourced, and the driver’s familiarity with the route.
At the farm, the green watermelons, fed by a canal of clean water, contradict the common images of malnourished children whimpering under the thin shadows of equally hungry relatives, which have for a long time defined Turkana.
Here, almost 2,000 farmers have moved from the traditional over-reliance on livestock-keeping to sustainable farming, and they are reaping benefits while at it.
It is harvesting day, and the water melons, some of which weigh up to 20 kilogrammes, will find their way out of the farm to markets, much to the merriment of farmers.
The farmers have managed to sell 20.2 tonnes of water melons between September and mid-November this year when their third batch was ferried to Kakuma. Kakuma is about 240 kilometres from Katilu, an equivalent of a day’s journey through the tough terrain.
A kilogramme of the melons there is sold at between Sh70 and Sh80.
“The watermelons grow very well in this area and this has become a source of our livelihood,” said Lochi.
The National Irrigation Board (NIB) is helping the locals adopt farming in this arid area by giving them expert advice on the best farming practices and issuing a strain of seeds that can withstand the extreme weather conditions.
In the 2,000-acre scheme, Daniel Waweru, the NIB Manager in charge of the Katilu projects, confirms that the farmers have recently harvested their fourth maize crop this year.
“After getting the crops from research centres we test it on the model farm before handing them to the farmers. The special W505 and PH4 maize breeds, for instance, was recommended by local research centres and it has been doing very well in this region. We only introduce seeds that we know farmers will get great produce from,” he said.
There is a model farm at the scheme that covers three and a half acres and is used by NIB as the testing ground for the viability of new crop varieties.
On the left side of the model farm’s entrance is a forest of healthy looking banana trunks while on the right are a variety of fruits including pawpaws, passion and oranges that seem to be responding well.
Further down is a flourishing carpet of kales, rice, green grams, African nightshade (managu) and spider wisp (sagaa) are flourishing.
The varieties come from State-run organisations, among them the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KARLO) and independent institutions like the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).
NIB is currently in the process of introducing three types of tissue culture bananas from JKUAT that mature within eight months. The new breed also has higher yields than the traditional varieties.
“We have three banana varieties from JKUAT, three rice varieties and fruits like oranges that are all growing well,” said Kennedy Yegon, an NIB officer in Katilu.
“With such varieties of crops growing here, it means that the people can diversify their diets by eating greens and fruits instead of always relying on relief food like maize from the government at all times,” said Mr Yegon.
Other crops that have done well in the area include green grams, sorghum and horticultural crops including pawpaws, grafted mangoes, butternut and dhania.
Waweru says farmers are now able to improve their diets in addition to having an extra source of income.
The scheme was originally started over 30 years ago by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) but remained inactive for years until the government through NIB took over in 2011, expanding it from 500 acres to 2,000 acres. It now has a membership of slightly over 1,800 farmers.
The irrigation scheme taps water from the seasonal River Turkwel, and directs it to the expansive farm through several canals.
Mr Waweru notes that they have a bias for crops that mature faster and have more yields to encourage agribusiness among the local communities.
But introducing the pastoralist community to farming has not been a walk in the park, Mr Waweru says. This is because the locals still depend on the government for farm inputs, land preparation and linkage to markets; which has led to the sluggish uptake of modern farming in Turkana.
However, he adds that the growing number of new members registering for the scheme is an indicator that the drive towards the switch to farming is feasible.
To maintain the momentum, the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), in the October issue of its monthly reviews, recommended that farmers in Turkana be supplied with early maturing crops seed varieties as one way of beating famine.
NDMA also put malnutrition rate of children below five years in Turkana at 13 per cent, adding that continuous supply of food could decrease its levels. Turkana South suffers the highest malnutrition rates among Kenya’s 298 sub-counties.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) lack of well-balanced diet that includes plan- based foods (vegetables, fruits and carbohydrates) and animal sourced foods (milk, eggs, fish and meat), makes children, in particular, more vulnerable to disease and death.
Lack of proper nutrition leads to wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height for age) and being generally underweight, which puts especially children at risk of diseases like kwashiorkor, rickets and even death.
The WHO also gives nations a short window of about 1,000 days (from conception until age two) to ensure that children get all required nutrients for proper brain development.