For many communities living in the arid and semi arid parts of Eastern Kenya, climate change is a blessing rather than a curse to their lives.
For tens of years, before the phenomenon became a big issue, residents from this part of the world depended on alms and food aid from well wishers. But because of the worsening climatic conditions, the government and related organisations have intervened, teaching them techniques that have changed many people’s lives for the better.
Geoffrey Ndung’u of Kanyonga village in Mbeere South in Eastern Kenya is one of the beneficiaries. For years even before the climatic conditions worsened to the current status, he could not easily afford food for his children. According to Stephen Karanja, the Water Officer at the Nbeere South district office, the area receives erratic rainfall that is sometimes as little as 650mm per year, which is too little to sustain rain-fed agriculture.
However, for the past two years, the 56 year old father of five counts himself among rich people in the drought stricken area, earning an average of $30,000 per year from selling watermelon fruits grown on just three acres of land.
“If it were not for the climate change, I am sure nobody would have come to teach me about dry-land farming. I was born here, and for all those years nobody came to intervene. But now, we thank the climate change because the intervention has made us even better than what we were before the changing climatic conditions became a huge concern,” said Ndung’u.
From the proceeds of earlier this year’s harvest, the old man has bought a five acre piece of land near Thiba River where he plans to start farming through irrigation using water from the river. He also pays school fees for his two younger kids, and he is planning to take his son to a vocational training school.
“We have introduced a new project known as ‘Drought Coping Training’, where we train members of communities from arid and semi arid areas on how to co-exist with the ever changing climatic conditions, and where possible, we give them a start-off capital,” said Francis Njoroge, the Officer in Charge of ActionAid International – Kenya in the larger Embu region.
However, Njoroge says that the only way to succeed with such farmers is by using techniques that are well understood by the community members, then improving on them for higher productivity. “Anyone introducing completely new crops and completely new techniques is bound to fail,” he said.
ActionAid has as well trained farmers on how to sustainably grow cowpeas, green grams, finger millets and other drought resistant crops to boost the food security. “We have already trained 500 farmers from five villages, and we are in the process of giving them seed and fertilizer,” said Njoroge.
In the same region within Makueni County, farmers have discovered a new cash crop which doubles as a food crop in cassava, thanks to interventions by organizations following the changing climatic conditions.
Jemima Mueni says that now she has enough money to pay school fees for her children and enough food to last her family until the end of the year, all from a crop she has despised for years.
“Who would have thought that cassava could be a source of income?” she asks. “For years, we have known it as a crop for the poor people, because we used to eat the tubers only as the very last option,” she said.
However, through adaptation techniques learned from different organizations including the Kenya Arid and Semi Arid Land (KASAL) project – under the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), the Agricultural Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and Food Concerns, up to 7000 farmers from the county have invested in the crop. Mueni has 540 stems on her farm.
They make cassava flour which is now available in local shops, cassava crisps, and cassava chapattis among others.
"We selected nine improved cassava varieties from the KARI root and tuber research programme for multiplication, after which more than two million improved cassava planting materials were distributed to the farmers through commercial villages," said John Wambua, the KASAL scientist behind the cassava project.
(‘Commercial villages’ is a concept initiated by KASAL, and is composed of several existing self-help groups whose members have expressed an interest in cassava farming.) ‘Mbuvo Commercial Village’ is one of the beneficiaries of the ‘cassava commercialisation’ project. The community-based organisation consists of 20 self-help groups, and has a membership of 560, all from Makueni County in Eastern Kenya.