Feature Story

Tackling declining food production and poverty in populous western Kenya

November 4, 2019

Kenyan farmers
Under this GEF-financed project, farmers have received training in best agronomic practices in eight sub-counties in Western Kenya, and a community-based seed production system has been established. Photo: Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have pockets of food insecurity. These can appear and develop for many reasons. And in some cases, simple nature-based solutions can make a significant difference to people’s lives.

Vihiga County, western Kenya—one of the most densely populated of the country’s 47 counties with an average household farm size of 0.4 hectares—is characterized by a high rate of population growth and dwindling farm sizes, and a land that is increasingly becoming uneconomical for farming. Pressure on land has led to a decline in food production and an increase in poverty. As a result, people are now moving into Kakamega rainforest in search of land for farming and settlement, causing severe destruction to the forest ecosystem.

To tackle these problems, the county government of Vihiga, in February 2017, decided to prioritize the commercialization of African indigenous vegetables to boost farmers’ incomes. Some 2,500 farmers have been recruited, in an exercise started in June 2018 to increase production of these vegetables.

Initial challenges included lack of quality seeds and training in best agronomic practices for sustainable, quality production.

However, things have been looking up since early 2018 when the initiative attracted technical and financial support from a Global Environment Facility-funded project, Scaling up Sustainable Land Management and Agro-Biodiversity Conservation to Reduce Environmental Degradation in Small Scale Agriculture in Western Kenya. The project—implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and executed by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization—runs until July 2022 and aims to set small-scale agriculture on the path to much greater sustainability, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes sustainable land management as: "the stewardship and use of land resources, including soils, water, animals and plants, to meet changing human needs, while simultaneously ensuring the long-term productive potential of these resources and the maintenance of their environmental functions."

Boosting incomes

Under the project, farmers have received training in best agronomic practices in eight sub-counties in Western Kenya, and a community-based seed production system has been established. There are currently 24 producer groups comprising 500 farmers, a majority of which are women, in Hamisi sub-county of Vihiga County. The project has contributed to yield increases from the initial 0.15 tonnes per hectare recorded in the first season of 2018, to 2.1 tonnes per hectare in June 2019, greatly improving farmers’ incomes.

Every and Everlyne Imasia attended training sessions on good crop husbandry, financial literacy, record keeping, land use planning, catchment rehabilitation and agroforestry systems, and now engage in sustainable land management practices such as mulching, crop rotation, composting, soil testing, planting agroforestry trees on boundaries and the use of terraces.

The area they planted with indigenous vegetables increased from 0.05 hectares to 0.10 hectares, and yields increased from 15 kg to 60 kg per season. Their income from African indigenous vegetables (including Ethiopian kale, African black night shade and cowpeas) increased from $75 to $500 in three seasons.

"I was never recognized by the community and the county executives but now I'm known in the whole of Muhudu ward as Baba Mboga [father of indigenous vegetables]… We have been able to pay utility bills and send our children to good schools," says Every Imasia.

Under the project, some 450 farmers have visited his farm to learn about sustainable landscape management. Some 5,000 indigenous vegetable farmers have been selected in Vihiga County for training in these techniques to create jobs and boost food security. This is part of an anticipated 100,000 planned beneficiaries in Nandi, Kakamega and Vihiga counties over the project’s lifespan.

Priscillah Mbonne’s experience

Elsewhere in Vihiga County, communities have in some places planted fodder trees such as calliandra, and napier grass for their cows, greatly improving the lives of 30,000 people (out of over 750,000 in the county).

Priscillah Mbonne and her seven-member family have been burdened by cultural norms that deter wives from planting trees and making decisions on crops. Prior to 2017, the family practiced continuous cultivation and mono-cropping, thus increasingly leading to food insecurity. As a coping strategy, Mbonne ventured into dairy farming, but her two cows grazed in the forest due to lack of fodder.

She now does minimal grazing in the forest since she has enough fodder to feed her animals. Milk production has also increased from 5.0 to 7.5 litres per day. The availability of farm manure and fodder for manure has helped boost farm productivity.

Mbonne smiles: "I have enough food at home and I am able to send my two children to school without any support from my husband."

In the last short rainy season from September to December 2018, Mbonne harvested six bags (549 kg) of maize on her 0.2 hectare plot, improving her household’s food security.

"Over 800 million people in the world are undernourished—a figure that is growing, not reducing," says the UN Environment Programme’s ecosystems expert Jane Nimpamya. "Projects like this one in western Kenya can be replicated in many other parts of Africa and the world where population pressure is driving land degradation. Projects like this can make a tangible difference to people’s lives."

Applying Landscape and Sustainable Land Management for Mitigating Land Degradation and Contributing to Poverty Reduction in Rural Areas is just one of more than 80 projects UNEP has implemented with the backing of the Global Environment Facility in support of the UN Convention to Combat Degradation and Desertification and other efforts to bring a halt to the threat of land degradation globally.

This story was originally posted by the UN Environment Programme.