Nelly Bassily | April 28, 2014
The farmland northeast of Lake Victoria has been overworked and under-maintained. Maize and bean yields have been declining for many years. But more recently, farmers are harvesting their small fields, their faces bright and happy at the prospect of a profitable year.
Joseph Onyango grins proudly as his wife and two children help him fill bulging sacks of maize. He could not be happier with the size of the harvest. Everything is running smoothly. But just a few years ago, it was a different story.
Mr. Onyango recalls the tough times when his yields were dropping year after year. He says, “I suspected my clan had cast an evil spell on my farm.” He decided to seek advice from an old friend with a very successful farm.
Laughing, Mr. Onyango recalls, “My friend, whose farm is a learning site for KARI [Kenya Agricultural Research Institute] in Kakamega, informed me that the problem had to do with soil acidity and not witchcraft.”
Mr. Onyango’s half-hectare farm is in Got Nanga, in western Kenya, about 50 kilometres east of Lake Victoria. The acidity of his soil, combined with the effects of weeds and the cost of farm inputs, meant that his bean and maize yields rarely exceeded half a tonne per hectare.
Mr. Onyango’s friend had experienced a similar problem before KARI came to his aid. He explained to Mr. Onyango the many reasons why soils can become acidic, one of which is the overuse of chemical fertilizers.
Studies have shown that local soils suffer from a lack of nitrogen and phosphorus. These essential minerals are often washed out of the soil by a combination of overuse of chemical fertilizers and heavy rainfall.
David Mbakaya is a soil scientist at KARI. He says small-scale farmers need to improve the quality of their soils to increase their productivity. Mr. Mbakaya advises farmers to apply lime to lower the acidity of the soil. This helps to ensure that essential nutrients such as calcium and magnesium can accumulate in the soil, which leads to improved yields.
KARI established a project in the area to promote the use of lime. The project also taught farmers more effective ways to store and market their surplus yields.
The results have been impressive. Bean and maize harvests have increased dramatically for many families. Farmers have raised their yields from only one-third of a tonne per hectare to as much as two tonnes.
Margaret Shiyonga farms near Mr. Onyango in Kakamega County. She says lime had helped her a lot. Her meagre harvest has shot up to two tonnes per hectare in only three seasons.
She beams with delight and says: “At first I was a bit apprehensive about the use of lime and fertilizer together, but after a poor season I decided to try. The results have spoken for themselves.”
Mr. Onyango has tripled his yields since starting to use lime. He says, “I don’t only put food on the table for my family, but also have enough [money] to send my children to school.”
Editor’s note: This story is the winning entry in a story-writing competition organized by Farm Radio Weekly and St. Constantine’s International School, Arusha, Tanzania.