Smallholder farmers in the drylands of eastern Kenya are benefiting from innovative farming techniques initially tested in collaboration with World Agroforestry (ICRAF) scientists, development and government partners, which they continue to embrace as an effective way to increase food security.
The new agroforestry and crop diversification techniques resulted in the planting and survival of 30,000 trees across three countries. For farmers, those efforts entwine with working the stubborn soil into basins instead of plowing their hardscrabble plots of land into rows for sowing seeds, efforts that have resulted in flourishing crops and yield increases of two to six times the usual amount.
“I did not intend to go into farming after finishing my university education,” said Eric Mulei, an enumerator in Kalawa in Kenya’s Makueni County, who participated in the research. “I am now a full-time farmer, planting maize, watermelon, cowpeas, green grams, pigeon peas and chilis.”
His efforts are part of a growing movement in East Africa, a groundswell of activity related to the realization that well-managed integrated agroforestry landscapes equal improved livelihoods and healthier environments.
Worldwide, more than 2 billion hectares of once productive land is now degraded, according to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, which marks Desertification and Drought Day on Wednesday. The annual event highlights in part how health and productivity of existing arable land is declining, worsened by climate change.
The ICRAF initiative led by soil systems scientist Leigh Winowiecki is just one among many international restoration activities that are underway as part of efforts to meet Target 15, “Life on Land” under the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at promoting the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and biodiversity loss.
The project not only supports the SDGs, but feeds into Kenya’s aims to restore 5.1 million hectares of land by 2030 under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which fuels the Bonn Challenge, an international commitment by countries to restore 350 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2030. The pact was made during U.N. Climate talks in 2014 as part of the New York Declaration on Forests.
Yet another international agreement for the benefit of ecosystems, the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 was sealed by the United Nations last year amid high hopes that it would infuse restoration efforts with renewed vigor.
In embracing the notion of transformation and change on a massive scale, ICRAF scientists took a new approach by training farmers in techniques and principles, while simultaneously providing them with the agronomic tools to innovate with methods best suited to their land and socio-economic context.
“By embedding research into development programs to answer key questions about which restoration options work best for whom, where and at what cost, with the participation of key partners — including farmers, researchers, development actors, government and private sector – working together, we knew we could increase uptake of sustainable activities,” said Winowiecki, who led the five-year research in development project, which ended in March.
The efforts of her team wound up reaching over 20,000 households in the four countries, but the word is spreading, and more and more farmers are abandoning less productive practices, opting to implement more diverse farming system practices, she said.
“They’re learning more about the theory of farming and knowledge-based practices, so that when they encounter a situation they can adapt,” Winowiecki said. “Farming is never going to be straightforward, so it’s important to strategize and problem solve.”
The scientists work with the farmers as they test and observe the performance of different options. For example, they see how crops and trees fare in various combinations, or when inputs such as manure and mulch arre applied in some cases but not others.
“Over time, this approach works better for farmers,” she said. “The farmer is empowered and can choose which works best, so they can scale it up across their farm. They are restoring the land and they are still farming it, which is new. We’re not fencing it off – people are still earning a livelihood from this land.”
The scientists are monitoring progress on the farms through electronic data entry, which is entered into massive databases, making the open datasets available on Dataverse.
“To avoid hastily distributing seedlings and introducing new farming techniques to thousands of farmers, without proper training or follow up, we embedded research into development in collaboration with development and government actors supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the European Union (EU) and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) to encourage co-learning and to scale up these lessons learned in order to reach thousands and thousands of farmers across the drylands,” Winowiecki said.
By integrating trees and crops, and by implementing tailored soil-water conservation measures, farmers can produce higher yields, leading to greater self-sufficiency, which may offer the potential to sell the extra crops. The techniques are considered beneficial over the long term, making farmers and the land more resilient to the impact of climate change, erosion, floods and droughts.
“Basins work well in combination with tree planting because they increase the water-holding capacity of the soil and reduce the potential for erosion,” Winowiecki said, adding that by introducing trees and providing training in manure and compost application to improve soil health, significant improvements were realized.
“We are working with farmers who in some years were getting a significant proportion of their food from the U.N. World Food Programme and Food Aid — a huge source of embarrassment for them,” Winowiecki said. “During the farmer community of practice workshops, farmers have been reporting how proud they are that their dependence on food aid has decreased because of the benefits of these interventions.”
“Farmers can effectively participate in land restoration, it doesn’t have to occur in protected areas or forests,” she added, saying that this is key for the realization of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
The returns on investments for governments are huge, as evidenced during discussions at a workshop hosted by ICRAF in Nairobi earlier in the year. Representatives from non-governmental organizations met with government representatives to strategize co-learning opportunities over how to scale up restoration.
“Being part of the research has been very beneficial for me, as I was able to choose which options to implement on my farm in order to see what works for me,” said Veronica Ngau of Mutembuku village in Kenya’s Makueni County. She cultivates 3 hectares on which she has installed over 1,900 planting basins 2 by 2 feet in size. The basins have increased her yield by over eight times, she told researchers.
This same story is now being told throughout Eastern Kenya, as the techniques and knowledge spread by word of mouth in Mali, Niger and Ethiopia where the project was also implemented with key partners and programs. Smallholder farmers are benefiting from this approach where they are testing various options on their farm, increasingly adopting the way of thinking about farming, adapting the suite of technologies that work best for their particular context and helps them meet challenges as they develop.
“I am now encouraging my parents to have the basins on the entire farm — they have been receptive as they have seen them doing well on my small portion,” said Mulai, who has been an early adopter of the agroforestry-led renaissance in farming ideology and methods.
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