- In Kenya’s Rift Valley, rural communities are implementing agroforestry to respond to new challenges brought by climate change.
- The Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) program trains farmers in agroforestry techniques that increase their resilience and food security in the face of hotter, drier growing conditions.
- ABCD improves the economic prospects of those who implement it through diverse, year-long harvests and new markets for edible produce and wood products.
- Agroforestry is also a main facet of Kenya’s goal to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Treaty, since it sequesters a large amount of carbon in woody plants both above and below ground.
KERICHO, Kenya – Less than a decade ago, the hills of Tuiyobei village in Kenya’s Rift Valley were nearly bare, with few trees or shrubs beyond the coffee plantations that yielded very little. The rain was sporadic, temperatures were rising, and crop yields and livelihoods were deteriorating. High deforestation triggered by increasing demand for firewood, lumber and charcoal had degraded the ecosystem.
These factors, plus high erosion rates after rains and chaotic winds, prompted Maureen Salim and five others to form the Toben Gaa self-help group to improve their standard of living through environmental conservation.
Some in this community are descended from the Ogiek people, a group indigenous to the Mau Forest. But they no longer practice the traditional ways of their forefathers, like gathering honey, and instead farm the land, like their neighbors. To improve their food security and nutrition, Salim says the group has embraced trees.
“We came up with a community action plan to plant 50 trees a year per household as access to energy, wind [protection] for the coffee, and improving the village vegetation cover by 10 percent,” the 32-year-old mother of five and Toben Gaa self-help group secretary told Mongabay.
The action plan came as a result of training in the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). The group has now grown to 46 members, 22 of them women. ABCD aims to empower communities to develop themselves through the assets they already have access to, along with some minimal support such as the sharing of skills and knowledge.
Today, trees species such as acacias, Casuarina, silky oak (Grevillea robusta), Nile tulip (Markhamia lutea), moringa (Moringa oleifera), agati (Sesbania grandiflora), neem (Azadirachta Indica), Tasmanian blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) and mwalambe (Terminalia brownii) are intercropped with coffee, fruit trees such as guavas and tree tomatoes, and crops such as maize, beans, watermelons, papayas and pumpkins. Depending on an individual farmer’s interests, animal fodder such as Calliandra plus Boma Rhodes and Napier grasses are also intercropped. Others invest in woodlots for lumber and charcoal. Silky oak is widely planted along farm boundaries, with mwalambe grown in higher areas susceptible to soil erosion.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that by 2050, food production will have to increase by over 60 percent to meet the increasing global demand for food, as the world’s population swells to 9.3 billion people. The FAO recognizes agroforestry — farming using trees — as one of the means to help meet the rising demands for food and fuel.
Trees also store carbon dioxide and improve microclimates through the capture of moisture, and improve soil fertility as leaves fall and decompose, while providing habitats for creatures such as birds, insects and fungi, as well as providing shade and shelter from wind for animals, plants and humans.
Learning their ABCDs
“The first thing they are taught to do is to assess the assets they have at home and in the village,” Victoria Apondi, a field agent with ICRAF, said of the ABCD participants. “They physically draw them on a piece of paper, then walk around the village to identify and verify their location.”
Salim says the group identified and mapped the land, rivers, institutions, extension service providers, retired agricultural officers, lead farmers and markets. “It helped me and my husband recognize our farming interests and the value we had in our two-and-a-half-acre [1 hectare] land that we never utilized fully throughout the year,” Salim said.
Salim, who previously farmed coffee and maize, often let her land idle after harvesting the maize. “Traditionally, we slashed and burned after harvest. For those rearing a large number of cattle, they were left to graze freely on the farm awaiting long rains during April to plant again,” she said.
Today, Salim and her husband, Moses, practice mixed farming, where they grow silky oak and acacia trees for shade, firewood and lumber. Under these, they grow coffee, with Napier and Boma Rhodes grasses for livestock fodder, plus bananas, traditional vegetables, sweet potatoes and fruit trees such as tree tomatoes and guavas.
ICRAF also introduced them to ABCD’s “leaky bucket” concept that community members now use to record their cash inflows and outflows, at both the household and community levels. “The inflows are the earnings such as proceeds from the farm, cow milk sales and shop proceeds, with the costs like the daily household needs, school fees, farm expenses such as pesticides, weeding fees and farm workers marked as the outflows,” Apondi says.
At the end of a season, Apondi says, participants like Salim are required to balance production costs versus final earnings to help understand losses or profits during the season. “ABCD taught us through leaky buckets how to increase our cash inflows through growing short-, medium- and long-term crops. We can sell vegetables within three months, some fruits within six, or continuously, and coffee annually,” Salim says.
In addition, ABCD uses community-led value-chain analysis that describes activities and people involved in agricultural production from farm to market. This ledger is vital in tracking expenses throughout the farming cycle and for accounting for income from sales. “It allows the farmers to plan for farm inputs as well as the selling time,” Apondi says. “Understanding the value chain also helps them identify existing markets, reducing exploitation by middlemen.”
Implementation and income
Last year, savings from the farm products enabled Salim’s family to open a basic food shop. “We used about 40,000 Kenyan shillings [$400] to open it. Monthly, we realize a profit of 9,000 shillings … I no longer buy fruits, milk or firewood,” Salim says.
With the cows, Salim practices “zero grazing” — keeping them in an enclosure and feeding them Calliandra plus Napier and Boma Rhodes grass that she grows on the farm. She sells 4 liters (about 1 gallon) of milk a day at 60 shillings (60 cents) per liter, and still has about 2 liters left over for her family.
Salim is not the only one maximizing cultivation throughout the year. Benson Orungo, a 46-year-old father of eight from neighboring Ochoria village, also turned to agroforestry, inspired by the Toben Gaa self-help group.
He, too, planted silky oak and Nile tulip, as well as medicinal plants such as moringa, agati and neem, along with maize, beans and watermelons on his 4-hectare (10-acre) farm. Orungo also practiced beekeeping, for which he grew Calliandra, whose flower provides the nectar for the bees.
“It’s seven years since I started practicing ABCD; for the last three years I sell firewood, fencing and building poles to local people, churches and schools,” he told Mongabay.
From sales of the poles alone, Orungo was able to put away 14,000 shillings ($135) a year with the village savings and loan association. The savings and the trees he planted for the future will be very important to his family; on Nov. 28, a month after Mongabay’s visit, Benson Orungo was killed by cattle rustlers who attacked the village.
The self-help group started off with 4,000 silky oak, Tasmanian blue gum, Casuarina, Calliandra and Nile tulip tree seedlings. Each member received 50 seedlings, and the rest were distributed to churches and schools. Their tree nursery produces about 8,000 seedlings annually, which they sell during the rainy season in April and May.
Changing long-held farming practices was not an easy task. “Initially, having people plant 50 trees was a task, as they complained about the size. But once we learned that we could intercrop them with other crops, it becomes easier to embrace,” Orungo said.
That wasn’t the only challenge; the villagers found they were putting in more hours on the farm under the ABCD approach, Orungo said. “It was difficult at the beginning; we were used to one season of planting that did not require too much work. But now, ABCD introduced a model of farming where one is busy at the farm throughout the year. It seemed too much at the beginning, [but] realizing the profits has motivated many to do more.”
While some needed a push, other members, like John Omuso, saw an opportunity from the high interest among schools, churches and neighbors joining groups to plant trees. Trained in nursery management, he decided to harvest tree seeds and grow them in a nursery. From his first trial this year, Omuso sold about 10,000 seedlings to the local church, farmers and the school during the April-May rains.
“I managed to raise school fees for my daughter who was scheduled to join the university, without assistance from the village. Now a school wants 100 seedlings I will sell at 80 shillings each for non-grafted and 150 shillings each for the grafted. It is my new project,” Omuso said.
Francis Obiero, a 40-year-old father of six, has a 4-hectare farm located in a hilly area, which would normally produce nine bags of maize at harvest. “Each time it rained, the topsoil would be carried away [to] the swamp that forms part of my land,” he says.
He subdivided his land into small blocks with terraces, and planted bananas, silky oak and papaya trees along them. After harvest, he leaves the maize stover to rot along the terraces. Last year, he harvested 19 sacks weighing 90 kilograms (198 pounds) each.
“The leaves fall and decay faster, adding nutrients to the soil. It maintains moisture for a long time, and it’s never exposed to the direct sun. I also rotate maize with legumes instead of planting them together, as was the norm before,” Obiero says. He also plants mwalambe trees for charcoal production, firewood and lumber.
To maximize and balance cash inflows, in 2013 Obiero dug a fishpond at the swampy edge of his farm. “Since nothing grew there, I figured a fishpond could help improve food security and diversity for nutrition at home. To minimize costs, I started using poultry drops to add nutrients to the pond and feed the fish. I buy [some] commercial feeds, and then use cow dung as fertilizer [as] the pond requires nutrients to allow plankton to grow,” Obiero says. He sells the fish for up to 150 shillings each to local hotels and households.
Improved local food security, global benefit
In line with the Paris Agreement, Kenya committed to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 relative to the business-as-usual scenario in its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) submission to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. It outlines improving forest cover and promoting climate-smart agriculture, such as agroforestry, as keys to achieving this target. More than 80 percent of Kenya’s landmass is arid and semi-arid land, and economically the country depends highly on climate-sensitive sectors such as rain-fed agriculture.
Lisa Fuchs, ICRAF’s project manager in charge of boosting agroforestry adoption in western Kenya, says she believes such community-based agroforestry approaches can help improve microclimates, economic opportunity and food security in rural Kenya; but a lot more needs to be done if agroforestry is to help the country meet its international commitments.
For Salim, practicing ABCD has not only improved her household’s finances, but also helped her village bounce back faster as droughts intensify in many parts of the country.
“Since planting trees, the winds have reduced. The areas under shade seem to recover faster after drought compared to other areas, and coffee under shade yields better results,” Salim says.
Sophie Mbugua is an independent science journalist based in Nairobi. Follow her on Twitter at smbuguah.
This feature is part of an ongoing series about agroforestry, see all the articles here.