In Makueni County, in Lower Eastern Kenya, the maize harvest has failed. Along the roadside, empty stalks stand pale and dry in the brown fields. With lower than average rainfall during the 2017 planting season, those smallholder farmers who pinned their hopes on the corn crop have little to show for their efforts. No food for their families, and no income for the coming year.
“It is too dry,” says Urbanus Mutua, a local farmer and Project Manager at Anglican Development Eastern Services (ADSE). “When maize was introduced in the 1950s and ‘60s, we had plenty of rainfall and good conditions, good yields. Now, we get between 500 and 800 ml of rain a year, and distribution is uneven. Maize still thrives in the west of the country, but not here. Not anymore.”
It is an all too familiar scenario in Africa, where in 2016 maize harvest failures, caused by heat, drought and other climate risks, left six million people on the brink of starvation in Zambia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Madagascar.
Looking to avoid a repeat of this situation in Kenya, Mutua and his colleagues are working with AGRA to encourage local farmers to adopt more drought tolerant crops. Since 2013, ADSE has been promoting the use of sorghum, greengrams, cowpeas and pigeon peas as part of an AGRA-funded project designed to increase food security and incomes for the smallholders of Makueni County.
“Maize has been a staple food crop for decades and farmers will never abandon it entirely,” explains Rebbie Harawa, Head of Soil Fertility and Fertilizer Systems at AGRA. “But by introducing these new crops, the hope is that farmers will see how they can increase productivity through climate resilience.”
Aiming to reach 20,000 smallholder farmers, the project is also focused on improving the lives of women and young people through the introduction of Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM). Based on intercropping and seasonal rotation, ISFM can further enhance productivity and offer viable routes to market.
“Previously,” says Mutua, “farmers might produce three-to-four 1,000 kg bags of crop per acre per season. But now they can optimise production and get five bags or more, sometimes as many as 10 or 15.”
And there is clear evidence to support these claims. In Kathonzweni, members of the Kasau ka Kyunyu Hope farmer group have embraced the new seed varieties and methods and are enjoying a plentiful harvest. As host farmer Elizabeth Muthiyani explains, up until 2014 the local smallholders planted only maize. But through the training and support of ADSE and AGRA, and thanks to subsidised, high-quality products from Kenya’s Dryland Seed Company, they have achieved significant improvements.
“We have 22 farmers in our group,” says Muthiyani, standing in a bright yellow polka-dot dress at the side of her smallholding. “All of them are now doing crop rotation with new seed varieties. I have two acres of sorghum, three acres of greengrams, and half an acre of maize. This year the maize was a disaster, but everything else did well.”
With a healthy surplus of produce, Muthiyani says she is now not only food secure but in profit, as she is able to sell the sorghum and greengrams her family does not consume. The impact has been transformational:
“I am very happy. Now I can feed my family and pay my children’s school fees. We have also been able to buy solar panels, which means no more kerosene. And we have access to external credit, so we can buy the inputs we need for next season. It gives us hope for the future.”
Rebbie Harawa agrees, claiming that the progress made in Kathonzweni is “what it’s all about – we can transform our families, our villages and Africa through agriculture. Even in dry conditions, these farmers have shown it can be done. We have to adapt to the new climate and the new reality.”
Harawa’s call to action echoes many of the messages articulated at January’s African Union (AU) General Assembly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. During the summit, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, taking over as Chairperson of the AU, spoke of the need “to save Africa from permanent deprivation” by “building wealth from within”. Meanwhile Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemarium Desalegn, hailed agriculture as “one of the major drivers of development” and urged for “a continent-wide agricultural transformation” to “eliminate the scourge of poverty and hunger”.
Indeed, if Africa is to shape its own future, agricultural transformation – the green shoots of which have been glimpsed in Makueni County – will be essential. In Africa, agriculture contributes 16.2% of GDP, and more than 70% of the population depend on small-scale farming for food, jobs and income. But Africa currently spends US$35 billion in foreign currency annually on imported food – a figure which, according to the World Bank, could rise to over $100 billion per year by 2030.
As Urbanus Mutua reflects, “there is no dignity in waiting for 2 kg of food that’s been shipped from Argentina. What’s more, Africa has immense potential to feed itself, being home to 65% of the world’s uncultivated land. We cannot feed ourselves through diamonds or oil – we’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work. The answer, as we’ve seen here in Kathonzweni, is in the soil, in agriculture.”