Interview with Stephen Muchiri, CEO of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation

June 27, 2016
A translation for this article is available in French

Barza Wire recently spoke to Stephen Muchiri, the chief executive officer of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF). EAFF represents 20 million farmers in eastern and central Africa, with members in Burundi, Djibouti, DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. The majority of EAFF’s members are small-scale farmers. We asked Mr. Muchiri to explain how EAFF has been helping its members deal with climate change. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Barza Wire: Many farmers in East Africa have had to deal with the effects of climate change in the form of severe droughts in the past year, and shorter rains than expected in recent rainy seasons. What support has the EAFF been able to provide farmers in East Africa who are affected by these droughts?

Stephen Muchiri: We have approached it in several ways.

We have put together a number of technologies that are climate-smart. We trained about 120 core people, who [then] trained up to 12,000 farmers through what we call cascade trainings, and we had about 7,000 farmers adopting at least one or two new technologies or new approaches. And the idea is that the farmers are able to pick up as many of those technologies as possible.

In some of the regions where we operate, because of the increase in droughts—for example in the Horn of Africa—we are promoting what we call agro-pastoralism. One specific case is in Djibouti, where, earlier this year, we exported 40 dairy goats for breeding purposes. The idea is that we actually improve goat breeds in Djibouti [in order] to increase milk productivity and improve the nutrition of women and children.

We’ve also been involved in exchange and learning visits. You know, farmers learn better from other farmers. During those visits, farmers learned that a farmer can have different enterprises. They may not necessarily only be growing crops, and they can actually keep an array of livestock. [For example], one particular farmer does fish farming, has dairy goats and dairy cows, and [grows] bananas. And the idea there is diversification on the farm, [which is] meant to create resilience.

We have also been involved in policy work. We’ve been engaging in the COP meetings on climate change together with our sister organization, which is based in southern Africa.

Barza Wire: Speaking of climate negotiations through the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, and bringing farmers’ voices to these spaces, what have been the challenges?

SM: There are challenges in terms of land ownership and land titles. Hence, to what extent can farmers really invest in their land? [This is tied] to the large land grabs and investments in land that we’ve been seeing over the years. There are concerns with respect to environmental degradation, and more so the fact that a lot of governments are actually aware that this is happening, but they do not have the capacity to enforce and monitor [it].

[Another challenge] is data. The technical and technological capacity in a lot of countries in Africa is low. Hence, the timeliness and the accuracy of the data and information that is actually generated on weather is a challenge. Two years ago, one of our members actually wanted to take their meteorological department to court because they had [been] given wrong predictions on the weather.

Barza Wire: We often hear that farmers need to build resilience in the different ways they face extreme weather events associated with climate change. But what are some of the long-term changes that you think farmers need to make in order to build that resilience?

SM: The biggest challenge we have at the moment is reliable information. You see, farmers are very rational people. They actually make decisions based on the available information. But the challenge farmers have at the moment is [that] they don’t have reliable sources of information that would allow for groundbreaking decisions to be made.

Of course, farmers have been getting indications of what will be happening, with respect to more incidence of drought and more incidence of floods. But some of the things that need to happen include: investing more in terms of water conservation and collection of water, because it is one resource that is going to be a challenge moving forward. It is [also] important for farmers to start buying seed varieties that are going to be more tolerant, especially to drought levels or [that] can tolerate flooding conditions. There will be a need to start increasing forest cover. The forest cover within East Africa is less than 10 per cent, and in some countries, it is as low as two or three per cent. Forests play an important role in regulating the environment. We need to continue to work a lot around environmental degradation. How do we ensure that we are able to conserve the soil, plant more ground cover, reduce monoculture, [and increase] conservation agriculture to minimize as much as possible turning the soil, and encourage the use of mulch to increase the level of organic matter in the soil?

Barza Wire: In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about El Niño as a weather phenomenon, and now there is talk of La Niña as a weather phenomenon that’s expected to affect many farmers in the coming months. So, what do you recommend for farmers in East Africa to prepare for such changes?

SM: When we look at the El Niño phenomenon, the central part and the northern part of Ethiopia was dry. They talked about over two million people exposed to drought.

Most of the countries in southern Africa, from Zambia, Malawi, going all the way to South Africa, suffered from severe drought. For the first time, I saw farmers in South Africa losing livestock. The pictures we were seeing there were very similar to pictures we were seeing in the Horn of Africa in terms of livestock deaths.

Now we are having La Niña. I haven’t seen the comprehensive reports in terms of the weather and what rainfall distribution will actually be. But, considering the lack of reliable information and the dry spells we saw with El Niño, there should have been alarm bells sounded by governments or some international body and information being broken down [for farmers] based on their localities, so that farmers and other interested parties [could] start investing in water conservation to actually start mitigation for [the] La Niña period. As we speak, this has not happened.

So, from where I stand, when it comes to the issues of La Niña and when it comes to crop farmers, they should actually be conserving water now—big time, and as much water as possible, for their crops, for themselves, and for their animals.

They should also be looking at drought-tolerant crop varieties. What are the drought-tolerant varieties that are out there in the market? Are those people who are multiplying them multiplying enough? And are they localized to the different localities—because they may not be a fit for all localities.

If they have livestock, farmers should be looking at destocking—because there is going to be a big challenge of pasture and water. In terms of pest and disease management, are there enough vaccines for animals, and fungicides and pesticides for the crops for that particular period? Because there will be outbreaks of pests and diseases and, if it is a major outbreak, there should be government intervention and management of the outbreak instead of a reactionary process. But, even at the farmer level, with their few cattle, their few chickens, their few goats, farmers should have enough vaccines and medication to be able to treat [their animals].

This is what we recommend for how farmers should approach the La Niña period.

Photo credit: Kat Walraven/FRI