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Kenya's farmers turn to greenhouses to beat changing weather

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 23 Aug 2011 14:21 GMT
Author: David Njagi
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NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Isaac Kimani’s farm is small, but he believes it holds the key to his country’s agrarian future.

One third of Kimani’s three-acre plot in Ndeiya, a rain-starved village on the northwest edge of the capital, is covered by a polyethylene-sheet greenhouse.

Kimani believes that greenhouse farming can increase crop yields - an essential goal in a country where the poor are at risk of going hungry ­- while also protecting the environment and helping Kenya cope with increasingly severe droughts believed associated with climate change.

Kimani says that greenhouses offer environmental advantages over open fields, particularly when farmers use chemicals to increase crop yields.

“In open field farming it is not possible to manage the flow of chemicals and so there could be damage to the environment when fungicides and pesticides are applied irregularly,” Kimani said.

“But in a greenhouse, where we apply chemicals through drip irrigation, we are able to control spillage and surface runoff.”

GROWING MORE UNDER COVER

Greenhouse technology can also help farmers produce more on a small piece of land, according to Elijah Mwangi, the farm manager at Mang’u Youth Polytechnic in central Kenya. He is training farmers to shift away from rain-fed agriculture.

Even under extreme weather conditions, Mwangi says, a single eight metre by 30 metre greenhouse can generate revenue of 240,000 Kenyan shillings (about $2,600) in one season, more than twice what an average small-scale farmer earns cultivating one acre of land outdoors.

Last month, Mwangi led a team of agronomists at the Mang’u farm in testing the efficiency of greenhouse technology by planting a dozen tomato seedlings inside a greenhouse and another in an open field, both watered with drip irrigation.

“The plants in the open field have already withered because of exposure to erratic weather, pests and diseases,” Mwangi says. “We are expecting a good harvest from the plants in the greenhouse in the next few months because they are shielded from changing climatic conditions.”

Ian Rector, Africa adaptation programme manager at the United Nations Development Programme, says that an additional advantage of the technology is that it reduces emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

“Greenhouse farming prevents GHGs emitted by agrochemicals from escaping into the atmosphere, so this is a better way of (adapting to) climate change in industrial and agricultural sectors,” said Rector during a press conference in Nairobi.

HIGH COSTS

However, there are concerns that the technology will not be widely adopted in Kenya unless the government subsidises the cost of constructing greenhouses and invests in irrigation, especially in the arid parts of the country.

Kimani says that erecting a greenhouse is expensive: a greenhouse covering 240 square metres can cost as much as 250,000 shillings (about $2,700) to erect, which puts it beyond the reach of many poor farmers.

“Even when farmers decide to invest in a smaller greenhouse, the cost of buying materials is still very high,” Kimani says. “This can tempt them to look for timber which they use as poles to put up the unit. It can stress the forest reserves.”

Nevertheless, an initiative by the government and a private horticulture company, Amiran Kenya, is attempting to persuade Kenya’s young people to adopt greenhouse farming.

Launched in May with a budget of 88 million shillings (about $943,000), the Kenya Polytechnics Next Generation Farmers Initiative plans to equip the country’s 650 youth polytechnics with greenhouses, which Amiran Kenya manufactures.

The idea is to change the perception that agriculture is an occupation for the aging, according to Aileen Kamau, the project leader at the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.

So far 100 polytechnics have been supplied with greenhouse training kits to spur uptake of the technology.

“The youth polytechnics serve as community demonstration centres, where the technology can be transferred to farmers living near the institutions through skills support,” Kamau said. “This year we will be investing in the technology in another 150 institutions.”

David Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.

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