Kenya: Maasai adapt to climate change with crops, not cows (by Sawa Pius, for Farm Radio Weekly)

| April 14, 2014

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Emily Kokoyo has reason to smile since she started practicing mixed farming. Her family used to rely solely on livestock for a living. Now she also grows drought-resistant and fast-maturing crops suited to the changing climate.

Ms. Kokoyo lives in Kirkamat, a village 100 kilometres west of Nairobi. She grows potatoes, beans and vegetables on a plot of land just under a half-hectare. The crops suit the current climate in her local area, which has been experiencing severe droughts, floods, erratic rains and soil erosion.

The semi-arid region is occupied by about 200,000 Maasai. Ten years ago, the Kenyan government allocated 2,850 square kilometres of land to individual Maasai. Owners were required to clear the forest in order to build houses and grow crops. Trees were turned into charcoal and timber, leaving the land bare. This is believed to have affected the weather patterns.

In 2011, the International Development Research Centre, or IDRC, and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, also known as KARI, started a three-year, 95 million Kenya shilling [$1.1 million US] research project. The project aimed to develop a method of forecasting weather patterns for the next 80 years. This weather information is needed to help the community adapt to the changing climate by mixing crop farming with raising livestock.

Ms. Kokoyo says: “This is helping me a lot, because here in Maasailand, cows belong to men. But since KARI brought us these types of crops and taught us how to farm, [I] am now able to harvest enough for food and sell some to my neighbours.”

The project planted drought-resistant varieties of legumes, potatoes, sorghum, maize, and beans in demonstration plots. The seeds are made available to farmers, who are taught how to plant and nurture them. The project is also promoting tree planting to restore the local microclimate.

Dr. Michael Okoti is the national coordinator for environment and climate change research at KARI. He says the research project used historical and current data to predict weather patterns. He adds, “We have regional climate models and [can] project them to the future, the next 80 years.”

More than 600 farmers have started growing crops. According to Dr. Okoti, the target is 1,500 farmers by September 2014. But, he says, it has not been easy. Policies change faster than culture. While it is hard for pastoralists to change their ancient practices, Mr. Okoti says it is no longer practical to own a large herd of livestock, because they cannot be moved around as easily as in the past.

Most farmers are happy with what they have learned. Peter Ole Nembo planted five types of legumes. They provide him with food as well as fertilizing his soils. He also grows a variety of fodder crops which prevent soil erosion. He has planted one hectare of land and encourages his neighbours to do the same.

Samuel Ole Seme set aside two hectares for farming. He feeds his five dairy cows on good quality pasture grasses. He says, “I now have exotic dairy cows which give me 20 litres of milk in the morning and ten litres in the evening. That’s one cow!”

Mr. Seme also has a mixed herd of indigenous and improved Sahiwal cows which he raises for meat. He sells the meat to pay his children’s school fees.

As they learn to blend their traditional ways with new practices, the local Maasai can now look forward to a more secure future.