Nelly Bassily | June 7, 2010
Daniel Muthembwa thanks God for the healthy maize crops on the green slopes that surround him. This village elder lives in the Sakai region of Kisau division in Kenya’s Eastern Province. At 76, Mr. Muthembwa is old enough to remember the 1970s, when villagers in Sakai used to rely on both the long and short rainy seasons.
Since the 1980s, they can depend only on the short rains that last from late October to late December. Kenya is struggling to emerge from a drought that forced four million people onto food aid last year.
During dry periods, there is precious little water. Women and children walk long distances to fetch water. But, thanks to a UN-funded project, farmers in Sakai are adapting to the climate change-induced droughts.
Dr. Maggie Opondo is the socio-economic expert on the project. She explains that the aims of the project are threefold: increase food security to end Sakai farmers’ perennial dependence on food aid, increase access to water, and create alternative livelihoods which are climate change-proof.
To achieve this, the project re-introduced native drought-resistant varieties of crops like sorghum and millet. Farmers had grown accustomed to cultivating thirsty maize crops. Maize is not the best crop for resisting drought. But, according to Dr. Opondo, Kenyan farmers prefer maize because it tastes better than drought-resistant sorghum or millet. While farmers still grow maize, they now also grow a variety of sorghum called gaddam to sell to the East African Breweries company. The company uses the sorghum to produce beer. This provides farmers with extra income.
The project also introduced downscaled weather forecasts. Downscaling involves linking weather forecasts and seasonal weather predictions for the Sakai region with agricultural information. For example, farmers are encouraged to use part of their farm to grow crops suited to the projected rainfall as well as varieties that produce well when the rains are either greater or less than expected. Farmers can also access local weather forecasts in Kikamba, a local language.
Better access to water is another key component of the project. Four new sand dams in different villages help improve water availability during the dry seasons and reduce the distance that women and children walk to find water. Involving women was critical. Dr. Opondo says that women volunteered to construct the dams by carrying stones and fetching water. And, thanks to the sand dams, farmer Onesmus Munyao says villagers can now also grow and sell vegetables.
Dr. Opondo says adaptation to climate change is the biggest challenge facing farming communities. The work in Sakai demonstrates that agricultural education and investment in water infrastructure can go a long way towards improving farmers’ crop yields. But Dr. Opondo insists that integrating long-term adaptation strategies into national policies is the only way to make these kinds of projects sustainable.
Funding for the project ends this June. Bonface K. is a farmer who has benefited from the project. He wants to see more support and funds to expand the project, better access to quality seeds, and more sand dams. Bonface wants food relief to become a thing of the past for Kenyan farmers.