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Kenya's farmers spot opportunities in warming climate

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 3 Sep 2012 14:22 GMT
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MOLO, Kenya (AlertNet) – For farmer Eunice Wambui, the erratic weather patterns that increasingly disrupt the crop season in her village are a headache. But the same warmer temperatures plaguing Wambui have given Philomena Nyokabi the opportunity to try her hand at horticulture.

Both women are farmers in Kenya’s Rift Valley region, but while climate shifts have favoured Nyokabi’s newfound niche cultivating fruit and vegetables, Wambui struggles to produce a profitable harvest of corn.

At her farm in Rongai, a dry lowland on the western edge of Nakuru town, Wambui has tried improving productivity by rotating her crops, tilling the soil less to stop it drying out, and covering it with fodder remains after each harvest.

Officials from the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) assured Wambui of better crop yields when they introduced the techniques in her village. But the weather brings ongoing challenges.

“Sometimes it rains for a few days and then the rain disappears,” says the 51-year-old. “Therefore it becomes difficult to make decisions, especially during the planting season.”

In Molo, meanwhile, some 15 km (10 miles) west of Wambui’s village, farmers are discovering that not everything about climate change may be bad after all.

The Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) has reported a slight increase in the average temperature there, a trend researchers say is good for horticulture.

The opportunity has caught Nyokabi’s attention. In the last two years, she has grown cabbages, kale, tomatoes and other vegetables.

“Previously this was not possible because when I was growing up it was very chilly here,” recalls the mother of four. “The only crops that could do well were maize, beans and potatoes.”

FOREST-CLIMATE LINK

During the 43 years Nyokabi has lived in Nyakiabi village in Molo, maize has been the staple crop and the main focus of agricultural activity. But sometimes it would fail to meet subsistence needs because it takes a long time to mature.

Unlike other parts of Kenya where maize has a two-season cycle, farmers in Molo are used to waiting a whole year before they can gather a harvest due to erratic weather, Nyokabi explains.

“When I was a child, it used to drizzle almost all day and there was forest cover everywhere in this village,” she says. “But nowadays temperatures are warmer and rains do not come when we expect them.”

Nyokabi says the forests have disappeared due to years of unchecked timber harvesting and land encroachment, an assessment shared by other homesteads straddling the Mau Forest Complex.

The complex is the biggest forest in Kenya and acts as a “water tower”, both generating and capturing rainfall that provides essential irrigation to the region.

Officials of the Molo District Development Office acknowledge that the Mau Complex has been illegally encroached on over the years, and they link the change in local temperatures to its destruction.

According to the KMD, Molo now records daytime maximum temperatures of up to 21 degrees Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) and night-time lows of 7C (45F), although officials could not confirm figures showing the change over the years.

But a 2007 report on the impact of climate variability and change on agricultural systems in Kenya said the mean annual temperature had increased by 2.5-5C (4.5-9F), with up to 25 percent more precipitation.

The country-wide rise in temperatures is probably due to wider climate change, not just local factors such as deforestation in the Mau Complex, according to the report, which was researched by the University of Nairobi, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the KMD.

According to the experts, changes in agro-climatic zones are likely to lead to shifts in traditional agricultural practices, increasing food production in some regions while reducing yield in others.

MARKET OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN

It is such changes that are proving a setback for some farmers like Wambui, but opening new doors for a growing number of others like Nyokabi.    

“The vegetables mature fast and I can cook them for my family,” says Nyokabi, as she tends a neat row of kale on her one-and-a-quarter acre (0.5 hectare) farm.

Apart from the welcome extra nutrition derived from her crops, Nyokabi is sure there is a ready market for them somewhere, and thinks it will only take a few contacts for her to start earning some income from her harvest.

The prospects seem good. According to a January 2012 report commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development, retail prices for kale and cabbage have increased by 20 percent and 15 percent respectively compared to 2011.

This market optimism is prompting local and international development organisations to give women a bigger stake in small-scale agriculture. Through the World Bank, the Japanese government has issued a grant of $3 million to empower some 3,400 women farmers in Kenya’s Rift Valley and Eastern regions.  

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is providing research input to the programme, while the Kenya branch of Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS), an international nongovernmental organisation, is charged with implementation.

Esther Mwaura, GROOTS national coordinator for Kenya, says the programme will provide incentives for women farmers, and train them in how to access agricultural technologies and negotiate market prices.

It will target women trying to improve the productivity of their traditional crops, as well as those branching out into new ventures like horticulture.

The government estimates there are about 6 million women involved in agriculture in Kenya, but most practise subsistence farming and have little exposure to market opportunities.

“Our research shows that rural women lack essential services such as water, roads, storage facilities, technology and access to land,” said Mwaura at the launch of the three-year project.

For now, climate change may be improving the fortunes of some farmers like Nyokabi. But for hundreds of others like Wambui, programmes such as that run by GROOTS offer hope it need not be a losing proposition.

Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.

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