Rethinking traditional farming methods is central to the agricultural landscape restoration process worldwide, a universal challenge with no single solution.
Location, weather, climate, soil quality, seed, geography, erosion, available resources and a whole range of variables compound the difficulties farmers face to produce plentiful harvests, particularly in degraded landscapes.
Smallholder farmers with few resources living in dryland areas in East Africa require rigorous interventions to shore up production and reduce the risk of food insecurity while contributing to international development and landscape restoration targets.
Women in particular face challenges related to food security because they tend to be the main food providers in families.
Worldwide, more than 800 million people are undernourished. Strengthening the food-producing capacity of family farmers and addressing land degradation are crucial components of building resilience against hunger.
Under the “Zero Hunger” U.N. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, the aim is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
Victoria Ngau, a farmer in Mutembuku village, Kalawa, Machakos County, assesses the height of a mango tree on her farm with the help of Eric Mulei, an enumerator. Photo credit: Kelvin Trautman
To support their efforts and learn more about the challenges they cope with day-to-day, researchers with World Agroforestry (ICRAF) developed a major collaborative project involving over 2,500 farming households in eastern Kenya. The backbone of the project involved innovative approaches to expand farmer-centered restoration options, including introducing new farming techniques in Kitui, Makueni and Machakos counties.
To fill key research gaps, scientists initiated in-depth engagement with over 500 farming households to learn how new restoration methods introduced by scientists affect livelihoods. They also wanted to understand more about the division of labor between men and women.
“Women already have a disproportionately heavy workload and we wanted to see how land restoration efforts affected their daily schedules, access to and control of resources and benefits, compared to men,” said Ana Maria Paez-Valencia, a scientist at ICRAF. “Learning more about these aspects of their lives allow us to better support the uptake of these options and find opportunities to advance gender equality at the same time.”
Women juggle labor in the field with childcare and the demands of often onerous household chores, which can involve long treks to gather water and fuel wood.
Caroline Mbuvi, CF-Waita, Machakos County illustrates how to measure the size of a tree planting hole to farmers during a farmer CoP in Muunguu village Photo credit: Kelvin Trautman
Field work is traditionally divided into gender-defined roles. Men are usually in charge of the plowing to prepare the fields for planting and women typically do the bulk of the weeding. More often, however, men leave the family farm for periods of time to seek employment and income-generating opportunities, and women are left to manage both home and field work.
ICRAF researchers introduced an agroforestry system involving tree planting and the digging out of square or rectangular “soil basins” for planting crops using a preconceived comparison approach.
Similar to water conserving “zai pits” in West Africa where the technique is common, the basins are around half a meter deep and the sides vary in length from half a meter to almost 2 meters.
“Basins are advantageous because they increase the water-holding capacity of the soil and reduce the potential for erosion,” said Leigh Winowiecki, a soil systems scientist at ICRAF. “By introducing trees to the farms and offering training in manure and compost application to improve soil health, we saw substantial improvements.”
The region is plagued with erratic and unpredictable rainfall, low soil fertility, and is under pressure from a growing population, she said. Planting basins allow farmers to prepare the land during the dry season before the rains – on which their crops are totally reliant for water – begin. With traditional plowing methods, the planting preparations begin later.
“Farmers do not have to wait for the use of a plow, can plant earlier, and spread their labor over an extended period of time,” Winowiecki added.
Although basin preparation takes more time than traditional plowing methods, overall, crop planting conditions and maize crop yields improved, leading farmers to say the extra time investment is worthwhile.
Men got more involved in management of the trees, which included such fruit trees as mango and papaya, timber species such as melia (Melia volkensii), and multi-purpose species such as moringa (Moringa oleifera) and neem (Azadirachta indica). Their interest was most likely related to their ability to sell the fruit. Although the project provided farmers with seedlings, buying trees typically requires cash, a resource that men are more likely to control.
The project increased tree survival on farmer’s fields from 30 percent in 2016 to over 80 percent in 2019, Winowiecki said, adding that tree-planting can help increase the ability of soil to absorb water and reduce erosion. The challenge to increased tree cover in arid climates was low seedling survival, however this project has overcome these challenges.”
The technique altered traditions. Men reported they had less time for leisure and community activities, and women said they had less time for housework, water and fuel wood gathering. Women also said they spent more time on land preparation than they had previously, but they spent less time weeding.
The higher yields benefited women, many of whom have now formed collective farming groups to dig basins in groups, reporting increased morale and motivation and continued sharing of lessons learned and innovations on their farms.
Victoria Kioko, a farmer in Kitulie village, Mwala, Machakos County. Photo credit: Kelvin Trautman
“While men are expected to look for off-farm income, women are often responsible for growing food for the family to eat, so the boost in yields ultimately benefits women, reducing their workload overall,” said Mary Crossland, a Ph.D. student at Britain’s Bangor University in Wales.
In this part of Kenya, farmers produce maize to sell and for household consumption. A major benefit of basins is that when the rains are poor they produce a maize yield, while their traditional farming practices fail completely.
“As farmers have gained confidence in the basins, they have started to experiment with growing fruit and vegetables within them, indicating that the technology could be used with higher-value crops, not just those used for subsistence, and help increase incomes,” Crossland said.
“We’ve seen that the number of basins the average farmer has on their farm has increased from an average of 35 basins in 2018 to over 80 basins in 2020, although several farmers have dug hundreds and even thousands of basins,” she said, adding that the scientists observed yield increases of two to six times the usual amount.
For restoration projects, the scientists learned that the best approach is to offer multi-faceted options, which can suit both men and women.
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CIFOR advances human well-being, equity and environmental integrity by conducting innovative research, developing partners’ capacity, and actively engaging in dialogue with all stakeholders to inform policies and practices that affect forests and people. CIFOR is a CGIAR Research Center, and leads the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). Our headquarters are in Bogor, Indonesia, with offices in Nairobi, Kenya, Yaounde, Cameroon, and Lima, Peru.