SCALING UP CONSERVATION AGRICULTURE IN KENYA

Crop species grown in association.
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Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is actively involved in promoting conservation agriculture, a sustainable approach to help farmers increase productivity and become wealthy

Over 70 per cent of people living in rural areas take part in various agricultural activities including farming and livestock keeping. Most of these are small scale farmers. Agriculture contributes 26 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Therefore, the need to improve and strengthen the performance of the agricultural sector is a precondition for attaining constant growth. In recent times, however, farming is facing major challenges associated with low soil nutrients, pests, and diseases. This has necessitated the need to change from conventional farming to sustainable farming systems.

Regarding this, organizations are creating awareness of conservation agriculture (CA) as a technique of sustainable agricultural practice. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is actively engaged in promoting CA in different parts of the country. FAO is a main stakeholder of the agricultural sector in Kenya and helps the government in the implementation of agriculture.

The organization’s partnership with the Kenyan government is evidenced by the development of the FAO Country Programming Framework for Kenya (CPF) 2014-2017. “It outlines the organization’s contribution to the achievement of national agricultural priorities and objectives as defined in key government policy documents,” avers Luca Alinovi, FAO Representative in Kenya. The CPF document, which assesses the status of agriculture in the country, was developed after thorough consultation with key stakeholders.

According to Alinovi, adopting CA practice is beneficial at the regional, local, as well as at the farm level. “CA is an approach to managing agro-ecosystems for better and sustained productivity, food security and increased profitability while preserving the environment,” he observes. Conservation agriculture aims at achieving sustainable agriculture and superior livelihood for farmers.

There are growing numbers of smallholder farmers in Kenya who are successfully implementing CA practices adapted to specific local conditions and existing crop and livestock production customs.

FAO participates in farmer field school (FFS) where farmers come together in one of their own fields to learn about their crops and how to farm better by observing, analyzing and trying out new ideas. During some of its FFS, FAO discovered that farmers who adopted CA considerably reduced their labour inputs, time requirements while enhancing their crop yield.

Permanent organic soil cover.

Principles of CA

CA combines three major principles of soil surface cover, reduced or no tillage resulting in minimal soil disturbance, crop rotations and associations. Farmers are free to implement what is best for their regions. CA supports the idea of sustainable growth of production.

The approach requires crop residue to be left on the field or planting of cover crops. Keeping the soil covered and planting through the mulch protects the soil and enhances the growing environment for the crop. Intercropping or crop rotation is a highly advocated feature of CA.

Direct planting without prior inversion of the soil is recommended. Although excessive soil tillage leads to a short-term boost in fertility, its medium-term impacts include structural degradation, erosion, as well as loss of organic matter. These have the capacity to affect crop productivity at a greater extent.

Weed and crop residues should not be burnt as this destroys an essential source of plant nutrients. The motive for ploughing or burning could be attained through crop rotations or integrated pest management.

CA in practice

CA is a foundation tool for sustainable production. The organization has focused on supporting farmers to become happier and wealthier by developing capacity, decreasing dependency, strengthening extension systems and providing technical knowledge. The ultimate goal is bringing agriculture closer to the farmers.

FAO is promoting CA mostly in the semi-arid areas as it focuses on supporting the vulnerable communities. Currently, it is working in different counties including Kitui, Tharakanithi, Machakos, and Makueni.The organization is also planning to move to Meru, Laikipia, Kilifi, and Kwale. CA is a great solution since it saves on farm inputs, responds to better use of water, and increases productivity. It is beneficial, particularly in the semi-arid regions, which receive low rainfall. CA is also a big component of climate change, a major global issue in the current time.

The organization is providing training to extension officers, non-governmental organizations as well as local community members, who are in turn expected to train farmers. “It has 20 master trainers, 40 training of trainers (TOT), and 240 trainers in every county,” affirms Alinovi. “The latter are required to train 60 farmers each,” he adds.

The organization is also doing several innovations in West Pokot, where it is encouraging farmers to grow green grams. The residents, who are mainly livestock keepers, have responded positively as they anticipate benefiting from the project. FAO first undertakes a pilot study that helps in showcasing, attracting and encouraging farmers to implement the CA approach. Approximately 78,000 farmers have adopted conservation agriculture. FAO sees this is a great achievement as plans are underway to move to the second training phase.

Connecting farmers to markets

Agriculture is entrepreneurship. To make farmers get value of their farm produce, FAO makes agreements with various companies such as Unga Group Limited, which in turn sign contracts with farmers. This is beneficial in that farmers are guaranteed of quality seeds, technical advice and stable prices, thus leading to increased production and profits.

Small-scale producers can become rich by producing commodities of great value, getting the right inputs and using proper technology. The role of FAO is supporting farmers to produce more to meet market demand while championing for market solutions. Production driven by market demand is the model that the organization has adopted.

Challenges faced while implementing CA

Shifting from conventional agriculture to CA practices represents one of the key challenges in terms of changing habits and mind sets. Traditionally, farmers believed in tilling their lands to bury weeds, break soil compaction, and mineralize nutrients while creating a loose bed appropriate for sowing seeds. While this is true in the short-term, they have negative medium-to-long term impacts as they result in the impoverishment of soil quality that is unsuitable from an environmental and economic viewpoint.

Besides, producing sufficient residue to cater for both livestock demand and soil cover is a great challenge. Many farmers use biomass for various purposes including building of huts, production of cooking fire, as well as feeding of livestock. Therefore, farmers are not willing to leave it in the fields to rot. However, FAO is creating awareness at the county level on the long-term benefits of CA.

Farmers lack knowledge on how to undertake CA. Providing the basic knowhow during FFS before farmers can implement the practices is a key priority of the organization.

Notwithstanding these challenges, farmers are responding positively and are willing to abandon their traditional farming techniques as they are guaranteed of increased productivity and income.

Through rural agricultural development, FAO is also focused on boosting food security, a problem that is not only affecting Kenya, but the globe at large.

In a nutshell, CA provides unique and critically needed solutions to many of the challenges all farmers face, requiring FAO to make every effort to develop its full potential.

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