YATTA, Kenya (AlertNet) - In the remote east Kenyan village of Makutano, Jane Mutinda Maingi is feeding maize to her Friesian dairy cow, bought just a week ago with proceeds from selling produce grown on her one-hectare plot.
Despite frequent droughts in the semi-arid Yatta region, the 60-year-old mother of six has healthy maize crops on her farm, as well as vegetables such as chilli peppers and cucumbers, some destined for the export market.
“Since my childhood, this area has never been known for agricultural production,” she says. “In fact, until two years ago, the government and other humanitarian organisations always had a default programme of bringing us food aid every year.”
Tired of this dependency, several households in Yatta came together in 2009 under a church-led initiative aimed at stamping out hunger and ending the need for food aid. They called their project “Operation Mwolyo Out” (OMO), “Mwolyo” meaning food aid in the local Kamba language.
They started to invest in ways of harvesting and conserving water, and to experiment with a mix of indigenous and innovative methods of dry-land farming. The approach quickly bore fruit.
The scheme now has a membership of 3,000 registered households, with 2,000 more hoping to take part.
“It is the first programme I have seen that has managed to end dependence on food aid,” says Lawrence Kiguro, associate director for livelihoods and resilience at international aid group World Vision Kenya, which helped the community-led scheme get off the ground.
WATER AT THE CENTRE
Titus Masika, director and founder of the Christian Impact Mission, which leads the OMO initiative, says participants listen to a wide range of advice about dry-land farming and how to adapt to climate change. “But we never implement any of it without trialing it in our own way,” the church bishop explains.
He spreads out a newspaper from 2009, when drought hit the Ukambani region, including Yatta. “One story moved me to tears. It was the story of Ngina Wambua from Ndeke village in the neighbourhood, who had died of hunger three days after giving birth to twin daughters,” he recalls.
He was also upset by a television report about how local mothers were prostituting their daughters to get food. These incidents prompted him to bring together agricultural and marketing experts - originally from the local area but most now working elsewhere - to think about how to resolve the hunger situation.
“After our deliberations, we discovered that the main problem across the Ukambani region was water - and that gave us an entry point,” he explains.
The team then came up with a model for hunger eradication in Yatta, which was published in a booklet with help from World Vision. Costing 500 Kenyan shillings ($4), it serves as a reference guide for Yatta residents.
World Vision’s Kiguro regards the OMO project as one of Africa’s most successful community-driven initiatives focused on individual households.
“As a development NGO, we are learning lessons from it as well, so that we can implement them elsewhere,” he says.
Other international aid agencies are also interested in how it operates, including Norwegian Church Aid and Church World Service.
The OMO model has seven pillars, starting with the mobilisation of local people by the church, self-help groups or other associations.
The community must then find a suitable way of harvesting water and enabling households to store it. Today, each participating family in Yatta is required to have a water pan, a small reservoir dug out on a slope to capture rainwater run-off for irrigation and other purposes.
They must also explore appropriate agricultural techniques and invest in high-value horticultural farming to generate income, as well as growing maize which goes to feed the family.
Farmers start out practising the OMO method on one hectare of land each. Maize is grown on one half to ensure local food security, and the rest is allocated to horticultural crops.
They can expand the approach to more land once they are producing enough food to feed their dependents comfortably and making some profits.
OMO members are also branching out into making value-added goods like fruit juice, as well as running services such as village-owned shops and milling machines. And they are involved in finding suitable markets for what they produce, both locally and further afield.
Thanks to all this, a region where people were dying of hunger just a few short years ago is now producing enough food for all its residents, supplying produce to Nairobi and even selling to international markets.
USING PROFITS WISELY
The key, according to Maingi, is the use of simple techniques that are easy to implement and sustain.
On her hectare of land, she grows maize using a method unfamiliar to many Kenyan farmers. She plants seeds in a nursery, which makes them easier to water, then transplants the seedlings into the soil.
Farmers are also advised to dig pits, known as zai, in which to plant maize seedlings, says OMO coordinator Stephen Mwangani. The pits are square holes about two feet (61 cm) wide and a foot (30.5 cm) deep, filled with a mixture of manure and top soil that retains water for longer.
Like her OMO colleagues, Maingi also grows vegetables such as bullet peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and French beans. “We sell some on the local market. But others… end up in the export market particularly in Europe,” she says.
Depending on market prices, this strategy can bring a farmer more than 40,000 shillings ($500) per week during harvest periods - more than many graduates earn in Nairobi.
Maingi is putting her relative wealth to good use. In the past she was unable to educate any of her own children beyond the age of 10 or so because she was too poor. Now she is paying for her two grandchildren to attend high school.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science writer based in Nairobi.