Kenya: A Glimpse of Climate-Smart Agriculture

This blog post by Neil Palmer first appeared on the CIAT Blog on October 14, 2011.

 From “madman” to model farmer – perseverance pays off for Maurice

There are many ways to describe Maurice Kwadha: farmer, entrepreneur, and climate-smart are some of them.

But some in Kombewa, in western Kenya’s Nyando Basin, used to call him a madman. Once, when he was collecting discarded milk packets at the local market, he was physically attacked by someone who thought he had lost his mind. But Maurice had a plan. And his small farm, with its burgeoning tree nursery, is the proof.

Standing in the afternoon sun at his farm in Kochiel village, he’s full of smiles. The day before he hosted a special event for World Food Day – which saw over 100 people, including the area’s provincial commissioner – take a tour of his farm. Even though Maurice has less than half-a-hectare of land, what he’s done with it is nothing short of inspiring, and is perhaps one of the best examples of climate-smart, sustainable, agricultural intensification in the region, if not the country. It’s little wonder it’s starting to get attention.

His agroforestry system has been established at just the right time, as the Nyando Basin, and many parts of East Africa, struggle to deal with increasingly unpredictable rains, and more intense dry spells. It shows that with a bit of lateral thinking, a small plot of land is no barrier to boosting food production, increasing resilience to climate change, and developing a profitable business.

In an area barely larger than a tennis court, he has dense, leafy plots in all shades of green. Areas of maize and the bushy fodder grass napier sit next to rows of banana and high-value papaya trees; several alleys of multi-purpose border trees including calliandra and grevillea help to stabilize and replenish the soil, maintain soil water, protect the topsoil from wind erosion, provide shade and fodder, and eventually fuel-wood and building material. He uses leaf mulch from tithonia plants as green manure for his fruit trees; further up he has a small area for onion, sweet potato and tomato.

His next-door neighbour’s farm, sown almost entirely to maize, seems horribly exposed in comparison. While heavy wads of mud cling to my shoes as we walk along the border of Maurice’s farm, the soil over the fence is dusty and dry. Maurice likens soil-use to having a bank account: you can’t keep withdrawing indefinitely if you have nothing saved up. At the moment, it looks as though his neighbour is in the red.

Maurice also has a unit for a dairy goat and hopes to establish a zero-grazing unit for his dairy cow. He’s also hand dug a large pond, fed by water pumped from a nearby seasonal river, installed an EcoSan toilet, and has a 3000 litre tank to capture rainwater from the tin roof of his home. Furthermore, he’s a committed composter, with various systems in place, and even has an ultra-efficient “rocket stove” for cooking.

“The mother of everything”

What Maurice is most proud of is his growing tree nursery, which despite being less than a quarter of the size of his cropland, is by far his most profitable enterprise. Here there are a whopping 20,000 seedlings of mango, calliandra, grevillea and local tree species. Some are for his farm, but the majority are for sale.

Many of the seedlings are growing in the discarded plastic bags used for milk, the same ones that caused Maurice to attract the wrong kind of attention as he picked them up off the floor at his local market. He says that recalling the incident still brings tears to his eyes. In farming, sometimes you have to act like a person who is mad, he explains. But as long as you know what you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

As well as collecting old milk packets, Maurice also picked up discarded mango seeds to establish his mango nursery. He now sells seedlings to a variety of customers, including the Kenyan government. He’s also started grafting mango.

The money from the tree nursery enabled Maurice to buy and install his water harvesting tank. His water pump was also bought with money from the nursery. Water pipes too. And his television. Money from the tree nursery enables him to send one of his children to school and another to college.

If we want to talk more about what he has bought with money from the tree nursery, we‘ll be here until evening-time, he chuckles. With a sweep of his hand, he says simply, that the tree nursery “is the mother of everything here.”

Despite this, Maurice concedes that for one person alone, environmental conservation is not easy – networking and collaboration are essential – and he admits there is still a long way to go. But he believes that if the whole community can see what he is doing, and adopts similar practices, together there will be a significant change for the better. His involvement as chairman of the the a local youth group, is one step towards this.

“What I’ve learned in farming here is, however small it is, what matters is the way you utilise your farm.”

Now, whichever words the the local community uses to describe Maurice, mad is definitely not one of them.

*In July 2011, Maurice helped to coordinate the first of a series of workshops with the CGIAR’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) research program, with partners from the University of Oxford. The workshops aim to improve the capacity of rural communities to address their most pressing challenges. More on this coming soon. Kochiel is also one of several villages participating in Africa’s first soil carbon project operated by Swedish NGO SCC-ViAgroforestry (ViA) together with the World Bank and the Kenyan government.

Climate Change not just a Threat to Staple Food Crops

Climate-smart agriculture must include a broad range of crops and farming systems, and not only the headline-hogging staples.

Millions of smallholder farmers depend on cash crops like tea and cocoa to make ends meet, and to raise enough money to buy food.

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Many cocoa farmers in West Africa, for example, treat their cocoa trees like ATM machines, picking a few plump pods to sell in order to pay school fees or medical expenses.

But as recent studies by scientists and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have shown, climate change poses a significant challenge to these and other cash crops, as well as threatening the headline-hogging food staples we often hear about.

CIAT’s climate models predict that high-quality tea-growing zones of Kenya and Uganda, and the cocoa regions of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, will experience an average temperature rise of over two degrees Celsius by 2050.

This is enough to cause the crops to struggle – and at worst – fail.

While on the face of it, this looks like a devastating blow to a huge number of smallholder farmers, this particular cloud has a silver lining:

There is time to adapt. Not much, but time nonetheless.

While there will always be some uncertainty in prediction tomorrow’s weather, let alone the climate in three decades’ time, one thing is clear: effective adaptation to a warmer world needs to start straight away, and must be a joint effort by producers, other members of the chocolate and tea value chains, national governments, and donors.

Encouragingly, the CIAT reports have been received in earnest and the ball is already rolling. The speed with which these industries are reacting could be an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Click to read more about Africa’s chocolate meltdown and the trouble brewing in the tea lands of Kenya and Uganda.

South Africa’s Farmers Struggle to Cope with Changing Climate

The following Reuters Alertnet article, by Fidelis Zvomuya, highlights the impact of climate change on farmers in South Africa.  

The dun maize fields at Vusi Mlozi’s farm in Sopisfonteng, in South Africa’s Senekal district, offer a possible warning about the future of agriculture in the country.

Spread over a vast 30 hectares, the farm is baked by a scorching sun and starved of water, the plants parched and nearly dead. A severe drought in central South African has rendered reservoirs temporarily unusable, devastated farm fields and made drinking water scarce.

A combination of excessive heat and high winds also has sent wildfires scorching through millions of acres of farmland. And this is just the latest example of the kinds of extreme weather that Senekal has been experiencing in the past few years.

“This year things have been hard for us,” Mlozi said. “We had long dry periods, scorching heat and very high temperatures, floods and the recently snowy conditions. Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season and this has shaved several percentage points off our potential yields.”

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Major Gathering of African Ag Ministers Pushes for Ag Agenda at COP17

Photo: World Economic Forum

Update: This Times Live article provides updates about the event: Climate-Smart Agriculture: A Call to Action. So does this Malaysian National News Agency article.

South Africa’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries organized a gathering this week of Africa’s agriculture ministers to push for the inclusion of agriculture on the COP17 agenda.

“Agriculture should be accorded the due priority it deserves, especially in Africa,” said Tina Joemat-Pettersson in a Mail & Guardian interview. ”In the primary text of climate change we have never seen a single line on agriculture and we need to change this to a global initiative.”

The event, Climate-Smart Agriculture: A Call to Action (September 13-14 in Johannesburg, South Africa), was organized in part by the World Bank, the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).

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Lessons Learned from COP16

The Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2011 blog provides insight into the crucial role that agricultural plays in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Revisit the ARDD 2010 Blog for an overview of last year’s ARDD and the status of agriculture in the international climate treaty context. The following is an article by Nathan Russell, the head of corporate communications at CIAT, that sums up progress towards the inclusion of agriculture in a final treaty.

The mutual dependence of climate security and food security was the clear message from Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010, held on December 4 in parallel with the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) taking place at Cancún, Mexico.

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