Kenya: Farmer profits from growing indigenous vegetables with zai pits (AfricaScienceNews)

| February 20, 2017

Download this story

The sweltering heat and winding dusty roads leading to Block Kamuchege A, a village in Kenya’s Kirinyaga County, paint a gloomy picture of the effects of climate change. For many years, farmers in this area have been unable to produce enough food.

The Kamuchege area relies heavily on rice production. But 38-year-old Elizabeth Wambui is making a living growing traditional vegetables using practices such as zai pits and regular irrigation. She plants vegetables such as terere (amaranth), managu (nightshade), kunde (cowpea), and sukuma wiki (a leafy green vegetable) on her half-acre plot of land.

Before she ventured into vegetable farming, Mrs. Wambui grew maize. But maize yields weren’t reliable because of the unpredictable weather in the region.

Mrs. Wambui says her profits from vegetable farming are better than her profits from maize. And she can take her product to market more frequently, which gives her a more reliable income. She explains, “There is [a] ready market for vegetables. Maize takes about eight months to mature, but amaranth only takes six weeks, and from there you keep on harvesting.”

But Mrs. Wambui’s journey to becoming a successful vegetable farmer was not easy. She started with a teaspoon of amaranth seed from a local non-governmental organization called Farm Input Promotions Africa. She explains, “When I picked the seeds, I did not know I was picking luck. Amaranth has now become my bank.”

Mrs. Wambui uses organic manure from her livestock to grow the vegetables. She explains, “I save on costs of production. My customers normally buy in bulk; hence no wastage.”

Mrs. Wambui also learned how to conserve water and reclaim eroded land by using zai pits.

Zai pits are a traditional method for rehabilitating dry lands and restoring soil fertility. The pits are dug with a pick axe, about 20 to 30 centimetres in diameter and 15 to 20 centimetres deep.

The pits are arranged in staggered lines in a field or along the contour line of a hill, with up to 100 centimetres between each zai pit. Farmers generally fill each hole with a few handfuls of manure once every two years, and plant seeds in the holes after the soil has been well-soaked by the first rains. The seeds are sown around the inside edge of the hole, not in the middle. Zai pits can be used to plant maize and other crops as well.

Mrs. Wambui explains, “I use this technology to reduce water losses when I irrigate my vegetable farm.” She advises vegetable farmers to have a source of water close to their fields to ensure continuous production, even during the dry season.

She adds: “I use about 200 shillings [$1.90 US] to buy diesel that I use in pumping the water from the canal to irrigate the vegetables. I water the vegetables once every week. [Also], weeds compete with vegetables for water and nutrients and could host pests, so it is important to keep them to a minimum.”

Elizabeth Waweru Munene is Farm Input Promotions Africa’s village-based advisor in Kamuchege. She says growing irrigated vegetables is the answer to the perennial food shortage in the area. She adds that, with training on climate-smart agriculture, ecological conservation, access to markets, and alternative livelihoods, the farmers in the area are now harvesting enough food.

Miss Munene says, “[We] provide [the] farmers of Kamuchege area with alternative sources of food and income when crops fail. They can sell vegetables … and survive on income from their businesses.”

Mrs. Wambui says that using the right seeds is important in vegetable farming. She adds, “For a good vegetable, one needs to plant the seedlings in the nursery for one month, then transplant to the field [while] applying organic manure.”

She says she is ready to buy more seeds and expand her vegetable acreage because she has seen the benefits. She adds, “I want to invest more in this [new] amaranth variety because I have seen the value.”

This article is based on a story titled “Picking profits from indigenous vegetables in Kirinyaga County.” To read the full story, go to:

For more information about zai pits, read this script from Farm Radio Resource Pack 101, titled “Farmers improve yields with traditional soil-building practices that restore and fertilize damaged soils”: