Smallholders feel the heat of climate change
Essong’olo village, in the heart of Vihiga County, is just like any other hamlet, with most households engaging in subsistence farming.
Isaiah Bitoolo is one of the residents of this village and, like many of his neighbours, he keeps a herd of five indigenous cattle in a makeshift zero-grazing unit.
Years ago, zero-grazing of such animals was unheard-of in the village as the animals grazed in a free-range style along the rural roads, in open fields and along riverbanks.
“Things are changing fast,” says the 44-year-old farmer. “I was forced to zero-graze the animals because for the better part of this year, there was little grass in the fields where we used to graze them due to little rains. Most of the fields have also been cultivated, fenced off or built up and some of the rivers have dried up, leaving us with no option,” he said.
To manage the new way of keeping his animals, the farmer has been forced to spare at least one of the two-and-a-half acres he owns for farming napier grass.
“For the first time in my life, I am budgeting for my animals,” said Bitoolo
The smallholder farmer is among hundreds who are feeling the heat as climate change ravages the country. And the farmers are adapting to the change in various ways.
Jemimah Keng’wa, a farmer in Esilongo in Vihiga, says she was forced to ditch cane farming for vegetables.
For many years, Keng’wa grew on her three-acre farm sugarcane (Yellow gal and Georgia red varieties), which are usually soft, with fibres that stick together, which makes them ideal for chewing.
This agribusiness attracted customers from distant villages who visited her farm to buy cane and sell on roadsides.
“The canes no longer thrive the way they used to because the climatic conditions are no longer the same.”
Jemimah has now settled for vegetable farming, which is time-consuming and requires more care than cane. “I had to settle for this because it is the most appropriate agribusiness since the vegetables mature future,” she said.
RAIN-FED AGRICULTURAL SYSTEMS
John Macharia, the country manager for Kenya at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), says many smallholder farmers have responded to climate change and variability by diversifying into the horticulture value chain.
“Horticulture presents an opportunity for shorter cash cycles, and this is what farmers are turning to as a way of coping with the ever-increasing climate stress,” he told the Seeds of Gold.
The emergence of new pests and diseases is also a huge setback for smallholders. “Unlike what we used to do, I no longer buy any maize seed because it is a planting season,” said Philemon Echoka, a smallholder farmer from Nangili in Kitale.
“I have to know whether or not the seed I am buying is tolerant to fall army worms,” he said, noting that fighting the pest is one of the biggest struggles in his farming career.
Scientists have pointed out that the worms are affected by climatic factors, and that climate change may affect geographical range, growth rate, abundance, survival, mortality, number of generations per year and other characteristics.
In other parts of the country, many farmers have adopted low tillage farming system as a way of coping with new climatic conditions. However, this is not a new thing.
It has been increasingly popular around the world especially after World War II – and similar no-plough systems were the basis for much ancient agriculture, before the modern plough was invented.
According to the World Bank, about 98 per cent of Kenya’s agricultural systems are rain-fed and highly susceptible to climate change and variability.
“Adoption of climate-smart practices can help mitigate the impact of climate change and ensure predictability in yields for the farmers,” said Parmesh Shah, Global Lead for Rural Livelihoods and Agricultural Jobs at the World Bank Group.
Macharia notes it cannot be business as usual for farmers.
“All smallholder farmers must diversify their diets, grow crops that respond well to prevailing climatic conditions, make good use of weather and climate information services, and learn to make use of technologies and techniques that may help them cope with the changing climatic conditions,” he said.