Kenya: Farmers practice zero tillage and permanent soil cover to improve yields

July 16, 2018
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Evelyn Macho walks happily around her eight-acre farm, which is covered with crop residues. The mulch surrounds the young maize and beans that she recently planted.

The 42-year-old mother is from Natundwe village in western Kenya. She explains: “Leaving crop residues and mulch is very important because it makes the soil more fertile and … it compensates for the need to apply fertilizer when planting maize.”

She adds: “Leaving crop residues on the land after harvesting also prevents soil erosion, and when fertilizer is applied, the mulch and crop residues left on the land protect the fertilizer from being carried away when it rains heavily.”

Mrs. Macho says that she learned the importance of covering land with crop residues in 2015 while attending a training on conservation agriculture. Extension staff from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization conducted the training.

She learned how to keep the soil on her farm permanently covered by growing legumes like mucuna (velvet beans) and by using crop residues as mulch. Permanent cover reduces soil erosion and increases soil fertility.

Isaac Amusavi is the government extension officer in the area. He says that local farmers started using conservation agriculture techniques in 2009. He adds, “Those who seriously invested in conservation agriculture have really benefited.”

Conservation agriculture is an approach to managing and conserving soil with practices such as minimum tillage, permanent soil cover, and crop rotation. Evelyne Juma is a farmer from Kisuluni village, about 10 kilometres from Mrs. Macho. In 2012, she switched from conventional tilling to conservation agriculture. Since then, she says her soil has regained fertility and her harvest has improved immensely. Previously, Mrs. Juma harvested two 90-kilogram bags of maize, which her family consumed in two months or less. She says, “These days, I get 18 bags of maize from an acre, and as a family we are food secure.”

Other women farmers admire Mrs. Juma’s success in conservation agriculture and are following her example. Mrs. Juma says she is training 20 women on conservation agriculture techniques such as leaving crop residues in the field to improve soil fertility.

She also shows them how to space their maize and beans by using a rope during planting. Mrs. Juma adds that she also trains the other women on crop diversification, using her own experience.

Before 2015, Mrs. Macho was getting low yields. But with conservation agriculture, she harvests up to 16 bags of maize and three bags of beans from one acre. She says she spends much less on farm expenses and labour because she doesn’t till the land. She also does less weeding because the mulch suppresses weeds.

Mrs. Macho used to spend 3,300 Kenyan shillings (about US$33) per acre to have her land ploughed three times in preparation for planting. With conservation agriculture, she is using crop residues and doesn’t till her land.

Because conservation farming has enabled Mrs. Macho to increase her yields, she is able to pay school fees. Previously, her family ate supper as the main meal and porridge for lunch. But they now eat three meals in a day. She says, “Hunger was a problem here, but now there is enough food for us.”

This work was created with the support of Canadian Foodgrains Bank as part of the project, “Conservation Agriculture for building resilience, a climate smart agriculture approach.” This work is funded by the Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada, www.international.gc.ca.

Evelyn Macho in her field.