While farmers in northern Kenya are hungry, farmers in the western part of the country are still able to feed their families with last year’s abundant harvest. Isaac Ochieng Okwanyi farms in Nyangera, a village in Siaya District, Western Province. His maize yields have shot up since 2008. He explains, “I tried liming my land for two seasons, and the results are astounding.” Lime is a soil additive made from pulverized limestone or chalk. It is available cheaply in Kenya.
David Mbakaya is a soil scientist at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI. He says, “From field trials we have discovered that the average … soils [in the region] can hardly support growing maize.” Soils have become acidic through continuous planting of maize without crop rotation or leaving the land fallow. The heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers, coupled with high rainfall, is another contributing factor. Average maize yields in western Kenya are estimated at less than one tonne per hectare. Yet neighbouring regions harvest five to six tonnes per hectare.
As part of a KARI trial in 2009, Mr. Okwanyi added 10 bags of agricultural lime to his soil. Scientists advised him that lime would decrease the soil’s acidity and help increase his yield. He comments, “The entire community, including myself, were very skeptical because we did not believe that what looked like cement [lime] could change anything.”
Mr. Okwanyi spread the lime on his plot, then worked it into the soil. Then he planted his maize and waited for the results. By harvest time, Mr.Okwanyi and the villagers had changed their minds about lime. He says, “From what I saw, I can attest that I have never seen such a big harvest in this community.”
From one hectare of land, he harvested 32 bags of maize. This was far higher than the four bags he had harvested the previous season. He reports, “The maize was vibrant and one maize plant would have two or more cobs.”
The cost of the lime (270 shillings or approximately three US dollars per bag) was covered by KARI. But even if Mr. Okwanyi had paid himself, his profits would have made the investment worthwhile. He sold some maize to farmers whose harvests remained low after they declined to apply lime on their land. But his success has since convinced others to try it.
Mr. Okwanyi opened a grain bank at the local market, together with five other farmers who had successful harvests. The farmers withdraw small portions of their stored grain for domestic use. Mr. Okwanyi explains, “We created this bank because of security reasons. With the biting hunger at the moment, it is possible for people to break into our semi-permanent houses in order to steal maize.”
Currently, he has two bags left for his own use, and his next harvest is only a few weeks away. Pointing to his new house, he says, “The proof of last year’s harvest is evident. I have since moved from a tiny grass-thatched house to a nice semi-permanent house.”