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Thursday, 8 June 2017

Kenya's parched farmers stop ploughing but harvest more food and jobs

By Isaiah Esipisu
IMENTI, Kenya - On a five-acre piece of land being prepared for planting, James Mwenda shouts at his two oxen, commanding them to move in a straight line as they pull a ripper that cuts a long slit into the unploughed ground.
The "low-till" farming system – in which land is no longer ploughed and seeds are slotted into largely undisturbed soil – is gaining fans in drought-hit Kenya because it helps preserve moisture in the soil.
But Mwenda likes it for another reason: it has given him a job.
The 31-year-old is one of more than 1,500 people trained in Kenya to handle the special equipment needed to prepare land and plant crops under the new "low-till" system.
Now he makes money hiring out his services to other farmers in Imenti Central, a sub-county of Meru County, who may not have the funds to buy the specialised equipment themselves.
James Mwenda preparing his land
"This is a new farming technique that has shown very positive results for the past two seasons, and many small-scale farmers in this area are now getting hooked to it," said Mwenda, from Kimate village.
"Low-till" or "zero-till" farming is nothing particularly new. It has been increasingly popular around the world since after World War II – and similar no-plough systems were the basis for much ancient agriculture, before the modern plough was invented.
But the system – part of a suite of farming techniques known as "conservation agriculture" – is now gaining popularity in Kenya among small-scale farmers trying to beat worsening drought.
Introduced to farmers in dry areas in 2015 by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is increasingly popular both for its ability to protect harvests and for the job possibilities it offers young farmers able to use the specialised equipment needed.
In Imenti Central, a total of 44 young men and women have been trained on how to handle the zero-till farming equipment, said Patrick Ng'ang'a, a former trainer now working as a desk officer in charge of conservation agriculture for Meru County.
Mwenda, one of those trained, said income from his low-till planting business now has surpassed his income from farming his own land.
"This has become my main source of income," said Mwenda, who now can operate all the hand-held and ox-driven equipment, from rippers and jab planters to oxen-driven planters and shallow weeders.
So far, much of the low-till equipment used in the area has been purchased by the FAO and is made available free of charge at government offices to groups of farmers trained to use it.
But some farmers who have started low-till planting services also are beginning to buy locally fabricated equipment.
"The idea that farmers are willing to purchase some of this equipment on their own is an indication that they are willing to move forward with the zero- or low-till farming techniques," said Mercy Mulevu, the FAO's county programme officer in Meru County.
According to Ng'ang'a, the government has set a standard fee for every activity conducted using the specialised equipment.
"We had to intervene because, given that only a few people understand how to handle the equipment, they were likely going to take advantage and overcharge their clients," he said.
Hiring someone to do traditional ploughing of an acre of land in Meru costs about 1,200 Kenyan shillings ($12), farmers say. But slitting lines using a ripper costs as low as $6 per acre because it consumes less energy, those doing the work say.
Farmers who adopted the new farming techniques in recent years have been able to boost their harvests, which has attracted more farmers and created more jobs providing services to them, Ng'ang'a said.
In many dry areas of Kenya, crops planted last season failed as drought swept across much of East Africa. But Margaret Gacheke, one farmer who hires Mwenda's low-till services, said she harvested 15 90-kilo bags of maize per acre from her land in February – higher than the usual 13 bags she gets from the land when rainfall is normal.
"This was far beyond average because my immediate neighbor who used the normal conventional farming method did not harvest anything, despite of having used fertilisers and certified seed," Gacheke said.
Using conservation agriculture techniques such as low-till farming over time helps improve harvests as the amount of water-holding organic matter in the soil increases, studies have shown.
"The main reason for introducing this technique was to enable communities, particularly in dry-land areas, to build resilience to climate stresses, increase food productivity and engage in agribusiness for income generation," Mulevu said.
In Tharaka West, a Meru sub-county, members of Maweni Farmer Field School have grown sorghum for the past two seasons using low-till farming techniques.
With consistent harvests, they were able to secure a contract to supply their crop to the Kenya Breweries Company, which uses the grain to make alcohol, said Stephen Simba Njagi, a member of the field school.
Low-till farming works best alongside other smart farming techniques, such as rotating crops, adopting drought-tolerant varieties and using certified seed, said Cyprian Mariene, who trains farmers in the techniques in Imenti Central.
According to FAO, over 10,000 small-scale farmers in Kenya's eight semi-arid counties are already practicing low-till farming. Mariene said many farmers are adopting the techniques after seeing them used by neighbours and relatives.
The techniques also have been promoted on popular television shows such as Shamba Shape-Up on Kenya's Citizen TV – a practical documentary programme that teaches viewers about good agricultural practices.
Article originally published at Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED).

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Agriculture reality show launched in Kenya

By Bob Aston
The creators of Kenya’s first makeover television series Shamba Shape Up have introduced the first agriculture reality TV show in East Africa. Robert Godec, the United States Ambassador to Kenya launched Don’t Lose the Plot (DLTP) TV show at PAWA 254 in Nairobi, Kenya on May 2, 2017.
The show features four young farmers from Kenya and Tanzania who battle it out for an agricultural investment worth USD 10,000. The show sets out to change the perception of farming among Kenyan and Tanzanian youth as a “cool” and viable career venture.
Don't Lose the Plot presenters.Photo/DLTP
Speaking during the launch, Ambassador Godec said that agriculture presents a real opportunity for youth employment and development. He said that the show would help to change the negative perception that agriculture is only for old people.
“Agriculture presents a real business opportunity for youth in Kenya. Such kind of investment will help spur innovation and give rise to a new generation of agripreneurs,” said Ambassador Godec.
He thanked the Don’t Lose the Plot producers and partners for the inspiring show and their resolve in improving the image of agriculture.
He said that youth involvement in agriculture would reduce rural-urban migration. He said that there is a lot of money available in agriculture and it is worth investing in.
Patricia Gichinga, a Producer at Mediae Company and Co-Director of DLTP said that they selected the four contestants from a pool of 200 applicants. The four chose their own crops. They had to pitch a budget of their expenses to the judges before getting funding for farm inputs.
She said that they want to educate youth on the myriad opportunities at their disposal to enter into and to grow agricultural economic activity, and to improve their food production and livelihoods. She said that youth would have an opportunity to learn and emulate the four contestants.
“We cannot build tomorrow agriculture using yesterday's methods. We need to change the profile of farming," said Ms. Gichinga.
She noted that the average age of farmers in Kenya is 61 years hence the need to change youth perception of farming.
The launch also featured presentations from the show’s Producer Mediae Company, Africa Lead and Mercy Corps’ Agrifin Accelerate program.  Two Feed the Future Kenya Innovation Engine (KIE) agribusiness entrepreneurs and a digital financial consultant participated in a panel discussion titled “Youth and Agribusiness: The Future of Food Security in East Africa.” 
The agriculture reality show is set on a rural farm with multiple plots. The four contestants compete against each other while living together on the farm. Each contestant has 9 months to turn an acre piece of land into a successful agribusiness.
The show has a call centre, a budgeting tool and an interactive SMS platform. The platform enables viewers to send questions or request for information on agribusiness.
The youth farmers receive guidance and practical insights from agriculture experts. The support includes financial planning, planting strategies, agricultural inputs and marketing. In the end, the farmer with the most profitable and sustainable farm will win the USD 10,000 prize.
Citizen Television in Kenya aired the first episode of Don’t Lose the Plot on Sunday at 1:30 pm. Subsequent episodes will air on Thursday’s at 1:30 pm in English and Sunday’s at 1:30 pm in Kiswahili. Episodes in Swahili will be airing in Tanzania on ITV on Fridays at 6:30 pm starting on May 5, 2017.
The reality show is supported by Feed the Future, the U.S Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, and USAID Kenya/East Africa Mission through Feed the Future’s continent wide capacity building program, Africa Lead. The support focuses on increasing media content on the agriculture sector and opportunities for youth employment and development.
Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate Program also supports the program. The accelerate program provides the contestants with financial management and access to finances.
We wish the best of luck to Kenneth, Leah, Issah and Winrose as they battle it out to win USD 10,000. We hope that more youth will adopt agribusiness after learning from their peers how to turn farming into a profitable business.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

App helps Kenya’s small farmers tackle pests, map crops

By Caroline Wambui
KATHERI, Kenya - Sitting under a cypress tree on his farm to escape the scorching heat, Michael Mwenda is deeply engrossed in his phone.
"I am getting the latest info on diseases attacking French beans," he said. "My neighbours' beans were attacked by a pest and I don't want the same thing to happen to mine."
Farmers in Katheri village in central Kenya - and in many other parts in the country - regularly battle pests that attack their crops, a problem made worse by recurring drought.
Countries with confirmed outbreaks can face import bans on their agricultural products.

Farmer weighing his produce in Meru County, Kenya. TRF/Caroline Wambui
However, a mobile app called Farmforce is helping farmers and exporters access information to contain pest outbreaks, track harvests in real time, and monitor pesticide residues to comply with global food standards.
Developed by the Syngenta Foundation and the Swiss government in 2013 in Kenya and other countries in Africa and Asia, the initiative employs field workers who record information about farmers such as their address, land acreage, the crops grown and pesticide records, among other things.
This enables real-time monitoring of products from cultivation to harvesting "as farmers receive progress reports regularly – telling them for example whether or when to spray pesticides", said Gideon Aliero, an agronomist at Interveg Exports, a company that exports fresh fruit and vegetables and has been using the app for four years.
To receive the information on their phones, farmers need to be registered with a food exporter.
Less Paper, More Money
Faith Kamenchu, project manager at Farmforce, said the app allows farmers, food processors and exporters to cut down on cumbersome paperwork.
"Most smallholder farmers use pen and paper methods to record their activities whereas exporting markets demand a range of highly detailed information on the produce," she said.
"Collecting that information by paper is time-consuming, difficult to aggregate and inconsistent, which makes it hard for farmers to meet global standards and export their produce."
A Farmforce field agent is allocated to a group of farmers depending on their location, and advises them based on the information they receive from the app – for example, on when they should harvest their crops. 
Kamenchu believes this simplifies export companies' management.
"The app informs field staff when farmers' actions might threaten compliance – like overuse of chemicals – and ensures that the agents actually go in the field, as they have to activate their location on their phone when they report."
Fraud used to be a significant problem among field agents, he added. "They would pretend to be on a farmer's field and send inaccurate information, with no way for the export company to detect any lies. But that is no longer an issue, as field officers need to turn the location mode on to access the app on their phone."
So far, the technology counts about 100,000 users – both farmers and exporters – across the country, Kamenchu said. 
However, Gabriel Ayoki, a farming consultant, said the technology's impact may be limited in remote areas where farmers experience frequent power failures and cannot charge their phones to access the app.
Mwenda, who grows maize, tomatoes and beans, says he used to struggle to sell his produce to export companies "as it was of poor quality and often affected by bacterial wilt disease, which I had no information about."
Now that he has been using the app for three years, he manages to harvest more food and of better quality, and makes over 50,000 Kenyan shillings  ($484) in one harvesting season (three months), compared to 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($193.61) previously.   
"My income is now steady, so I can make plans for the future like pay for my children's education," he said.
Article originally published at Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED).

Friday, 28 April 2017

Joto Afrika issue 20 is out

By Bob Aston
 The Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) is pleased to present issue 20 of Joto Afrika newsletter. The issue is a joint effort between ALIN and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources through the Low Emission and Climate Resilient Development (LECRD) Project.
Joto Afrika issue 20
Funding for the LECRD Project is by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this is within the framework of the US Government led effort on Enhancing Capacity for Low Emission Development Strategy (EC-LEDS).
Joto Afrika, meaning “Africa is feeling the heat’ in Kiswahili is a series of printed briefings and online resources about low emission and climate change adaptation actions. The series helps people understand the issues, constraints, and opportunities that people face in adapting to climate change and escaping poverty.
Issue 20 focuses on National and County Government response to climate change and highlights contributions from other non-state actors.
The issue tackles how climate change response requires coordination across the different stakeholder categories, and between national and county government institutions. This ensures synergy between national and county government efforts to address climate change. It also minimises duplication and wastage of resources and reduces institutional conflicts.
The Climate Change Act (2016) recognises the complementary roles of the national and county governments in climate change affairs. The Act, consequently, recognises that climate change impacts are localised, placing the county governments in a better position to identify and address them.
One of the objectives of the Act is, therefore, to “integrate climate change into the exercise of power and functions of all levels of governance, and to enhance cooperative climate change governance between the national government and county governments.”
The Act establishes a legal and institutional framework to mainstream climate change at the national and county government levels.
It is our hope that readers will find issue 20 of Joto Afrika as informative and that it would add value to their work in understanding the issues, constraints and opportunities that people face in adapting to climate change. You can download a copy of Joto Afrika issue here.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Sokopepe issue 3: Farm records for improved productivity

By Bob Aston
We are pleased to present issue 3 of Sokopepe Newsletter. The issue is a joint effort between Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) and Sokopepe Ltd.
The end of March 2017 marked the end of a successful roll-out phase of the Farm Records Management Information System (FARMIS) innovation by Sokopepe Ltd in the nine Sub Counties of Meru. This followed a pilot phase in five sub counties in Meru in 2014-2015.
Sokopepe issue 3 Newsletter
The past 11 months has proven that farmer-serving agencies are able to leverage on the digital record-keeping platform to reach farmers with various services and products.
Our supportive farmers during the roll-out phase made us appreciate that farm records could transform their lives. It has been a humbling experience hearing and seeing the various micro-innovations that they undertake.
Our networks of Production Information Agents (PIAs) have played a pivotal role in ensuring successful completion of the roll-out phase of FARMIS innovation. Providing record keeping data, demand-driven extension services, boosting farmers’ access to information through the PIAs has helped many farmers to realise increased productivity and profitability.
More farmers are now able to use the record keeping data to know which crops are more profitable. This is helping them to make right farming decisions, as they are able to know the crops that are “eating” into their profits.
We are now working to ensure that we launch our second Agriculture Production Report (APR) next month. We hope that through the report, the government and other agencies would be able to obtain reliable, regular, and high-quality data on the status of agriculture in Meru County.
We hope that the aggregated FARMIS data will help to identify trends, which will support appropriate decision-making, while the farm level data will continue to determine the credit worthiness of farmers.
It is our hope that readers will find the third issue of Sokopepe Newsletter as informative and that it would give them a deeper understanding of what we are doing. You can download a copy of the newsletter here.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Nurse with a passion for agribusiness

Thomas Ngaruiya
In Muiriene village in the heart of Meru County, Mrs. Doris Mutirithia’s 1-acre farm has since 2010 helped to support her family by paying school fees for her two children through the proceeds received from the sale of farm produce.
In a good season, the government nurse at Kibaranyaki Hospital in Imenti Central makes more than 100,000 from the sale of cabbages, capsicum, carrots, or potatoes. There are times when she takes her produce to Gakoromoni market in the morning before heading to work. She divides her time between her profession, family and her agribusiness.
Mrs. Doris Mutirithia inspecting her cabbages

“Farming is the only business that can allow me enough time with my family, profession and still serve humanity by providing quality farm produce," says Mrs. Mutirithia.
Initially, it was hard for her to know whether she was making a profit of loss. She formalised her farm records when she adopted Sokopepe’s Farm Records Management Information System (FARMIS) in 2016. A neighbour who had adopted the innovation recommended it to her as an easy way to manage her agricultural enterprises.
She has been doing crop rotation on a three-acre farm to improve soil stability and control pests and diseases. Like many farmers in the region, lack of market information and inadequate information on best agricultural practices used to be a challenge. Sokopepe has since addressed this.
She says that Sokopepe has enabled her to have better control of her economic destiny. Although she spends most of her time working at Kibaranyaki Hospital and with her family, she always ensures that she spends a bit of time at her farm.
“Sokopepe has helped me to embrace agribusiness. I am able to track all my enterprises and farm expenses,” said Mrs. Mutirithia.
Mrs. Doris Mutirithia preparing onions for storage
Last year she received her first profit and loss statement after selling cabbages. She is now able to use record keeping data to know which crops are more profitable. This has helped her to make right farming decisions. She plans to venture into pig farming using the profits received from the sale of farm produce.
Each season she is able to know which crops are eating into her “profits” and which ones are more profitable. FARMIS has allowed her to evaluate her income and expenses. This has eased her decision-making process.
“I can now account for every expense that I incur in the farm. Initially i never kept farm records and I could never tell how much I was getting from the sale of farm produce,” said Mrs. Mutirithia.
She said that the record keeping data has made her learn from her past mistakes. She now only invests in profitable farm enterprises.
Sokopepe has assigned her a Production Information Agent (PIA) who visits her farm once a week. Besides record keeping training, the PIA also provides her with extension services, market information, and linkages.
She has urged other professionals to embrace farming as a way of investing their money. She also urged other farmers to formalise their records to improve their economic gains and increase profit.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Banked farmers learning how to manage risks

By Bob Aston
Access to financial services is about to provide an opportunity for Kairiri Forest Users and Conservation Community Based Organisation (CBO) in Timau area of Meru County to deal with crop failure. Most of the members had contemplated quitting farming this year after the crop failure.
Sokopepe has been supporting the CBO to increase productivity and profitability of its members. This season, Sokopepe linked them to a micro finance institution to enable them to receive credit.
Members of the CBO going through Sokopepe's Farm Books

Linking the CBO to Times U Sacco Society Ltd has made the members to be among the few-banked farmers in the Country. The Sacco has a Kilimo Bora Loan, which is ideal for farmers due to low interest charged. For close to 5 weeks now the Sacco has been building their financial literacy and capability.
Already 30 members of the group have each paid a Ksh 200 for registration and are now saving Ksh 200 per week. Soon they will be able to receive Kilimo Bora Loan. The farmers can borrow up to 5 times the amount saved.
The Kilimo Bora loan attracts a 7.5 percent interest rate. The repayment is after four months when the farmers have harvested. The 74 member CBO are now planning to cultivate their combined 30-acre farm.
Mr. Bernard Mureithi, a Production Information Agent (PIA) at Sokopepe said that farm Records Management Information System (FARMIS) help financial institutions to know whether farmers are capable of managing risks.
 “The farmers are able to track all their agribusiness enterprises and expenses incurred. This will ensure effective use of Kilimo Bora loans,” said Mr. Mureithi.
Mr. David Kabuari, Kairiri Forest Users, and Conservation CBO Chairman said that access to credit has always been a challenge. Financial institutions always deny them loans due to lack of proper farm records.
“Most financial institutions are always reluctant to lend to us. We are glad that Sokopepe linked us to a micro finance institution. We are now capable of accessing and managing credit," said Mr. Kabuari.
He said that Sokopepe has been training the CBO on record keeping, best agricultural practices, market information and linkages, and conservation agriculture.
“The training has equipped us with agribusiness skills. The knowledge is helping our members to track their agribusiness enterprises and expenses. This will help us to use the Kilimo Bora Loan which we expect to receive soon,” said Mr. Kabuari.
Members of the CBO being trained on financial literacy
Mr. Mureithi has been visiting the group every week to check on the progress of their crops. He has also been assisting individual members in filling their farm book.
He said that Sokopepe has enabled the CBO members to plan their farm enterprises. They are able to know the enterprises that ‘are eating’ into their profits.
The CBO has been engaging in forest management and conservation of Timau Forest for 9 years. The CBO has a Forest Management Agreement with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). Through the agreement, KFS issued the group with 1.5-acre land for farming.
The group is playing an important role in forest restoration and agroforestry. This is helping to restore healthy, diverse, productive, and sustainable land-use systems.
The group has integrated apiculture with other farming activities. The CBO's 19 beehives are helping in pollination of plants, trees, fruits, and crops. This ensures the improvement of yields as well as promoting environmental conservation.
Mr. Kabuari noted that apiculture enables them to get income from honey, bees wax, pollen, propolis, bee colonies, bee brood, queen bees, and package bees.
The CBO also owns a tree nursery that produces at least 4,000 indigenous tree seedlings and around 3,000 exotic species. The CBO has been planting trees in Timau Forest, individual farms, education facilities, riparian and government land.
They have been donating seedlings to Water Resource Users Association (WRUA), schools, hospitals, and government departments. They are also selling to individuals. Exotic trees retail between Ksh 10-15 while indigenous trees retail at Ksh 25-50.
Difficulty in accessing credit facilities has hindered the productivity of most smallholder farmers. Sokopepe is keen on financial inclusion, as it would ensure increased income for farmers.