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Farmers regreen Kenya’s drylands with agroforestry and an app

  • In Kenya, less than 20% of farmland is suitable for crops due to inadequate rains and degraded soils, and many farmers have seen their land produce less to the point of needing food aid.
  • Dried-out soils create a hard pan that rains and roots can’t penetrate, but in Kenya, more than 35,000 farmers have joined the Drylands Development Programme to regreen their lands with agroforestry, joining peers in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger.
  • By planting annual crops among useful trees like mango, orange and neem, vegetables and animal forage crops receive enough cooling shade and moisture for them to take hold out of the scorching sun.
  • As each farmer learns what combination of crops and trees works for them, the results are rapidly shared with researchers and fellow farmers through an app, speeding the rate at which all the program participants can benefit from the knowledge.

MAKUENI, Kenya — A quarter of the world’s 4.4 billion hectares (10.9 million acres) of cropland is degraded, often due to drying, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Just over a hectare and a half, or 4 acres, of that dried-out land have for years been located at Benedict Manyi’s farm in southeastern Kenya.

Manyi, 53, watched helplessly as his land lost productivity due to the multiple factors of overuse without restoration, erratic rains, and prolonged droughts. By 2016, the land could not even sustain a blade of grass.

Lately, though, he is changing that. Manyi is among the more than 35,000 farmers in Kenya who have joined the Drylands Development Programme (DryDev), a donor-led project that is turning arid Kenya into green farms which works in concert with the IFAD-EU funded Drylands Restoration Project.

“I hardly harvested enough before I started practicing dryland agroforestry. Now I get surplus, value and more,” says the father of four, adding that he can harvest up to six 90-kilogram (200-pound) bags of produce from a 0.8-hectare (2-acre) plot, whether the rains are adequate or not.

Benedict Manyi, a farmer from southeastern Kenya, checks his trees. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

According to the FAO, the world’s agricultural productivity increased by up to 200% by 2010. But in Kenya, inadequate rains and degraded soils mean less than 20% of the area is suitable for crops, says Dikson Kibata, a technical officer with the country’s Agriculture and Food Authority.

So, farmers like Manyi are learning how to make their degraded lands productive again after joining DryDev, a project led by World Agroforestry (ICRAF) that has been working with farmers in Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger since 2013.

Funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and humanitarian group World Vision, DryDev has been training farmers in Africa to transition from subsistence farming and reliance on charity to agriculture that is productive and environmentally friendly.

In Kenya, where about 80% of the terrain is dryland, the project is working with farmers to encourage the growing of annual crops between or under trees, in a technique called agroforestry, which provides enough cooling shade and moisture for the crops to take hold out of the scorching sun. The project has also helped farmers to adopt rainwater harvesting for use on the farm.

“We have been supporting farmers with new farming technologies, tree planting using different treatments, and pest control. Those who planted mangoes are already enjoying the harvests,” says Mercy Musyoki, a community facilitator working with World Agroforestry.

Musyoki works with about 285 farmers in Makueni county, a parched region of southeastern Kenya. One of these is Manyi, whose farm is dotted with a variety of trees and annual crops, including mangoes, oranges, alfalfa (Medicago sativa, also called lucerne), Senna alexandrina, neem (Azadirachta indica), Melia volkensii, and tamarind.

Tucked under rows of flowering mango trees is the stubble of recently harvested green grams (mung beans), cowpeas, pigeon peas, pumpkin and sorghum.

Manyi and his wife Eunice walk among their mango trees which are intercropped with beans, peas, pumpkins and sorghum. A ripe mango hangs in the foreground. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

In a separate section of the farm, Manyi intercrops Melia volkensii with brachiaria grass, a livestock fodder that is fetching new revenue for his family. In another section, he has mixed alfalfa and senna with vegetables like kale and perennial plants like yellow passion fruit, papaya and bananas.

“I call this my family’s kitchen garden. The benefits of mango farming have enabled me to invest in water harvesting, which I use to nourish my greens and water my livestock,” Manyi says with a sweep of his hands across the farm.

It is easy to understand Manyi’s meaning. Before getting to his farm, a visitor will travel through miles of parched rangelands, which are being stripped of their indigenous trees to create room for human settlement.

Joshua Mutisya, a local from the region, says families here can own up to 20 hectares (50 acres) of land because villages are sparsely populated. The land tenure system is mostly ancestral, where new generations inherit family land from their older kin. With the onset of the new millennium, however, the population has been increasing, so a growing number of the new generation are seeking individual land ownership, forcing the ancestral system to accept land subdivision to accommodate the youth.

“Most of the youth have no interest in developing the land. Instead they lease it to livestock herders and charcoal burners. This has worsened the state of our lands, which were already degraded by prolonged droughts,” Mutisya says.

Wildlife like dik-diks, rabbits, guineafowl, snakes and rare bird species have been disappearing due to destruction of their rangeland habitats, and their exposure has led to increased game hunting, says Kaloki Mutwota, who has been farming here for more than 20 years.

Kaloki Mutwota tends to one of his custard apple (Annona squamosa) trees. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

In the 59 years that Mutwota has lived here, he says, he used to see these animals in abundance. But starting around the middle of the last decade, few if any at all have been seen roaming in Makueni.

“As the local life regeneration system declined, farms became barren, starving families scrambled for relief food, and livestock became emaciated due to walking long distances in search of water and pasture,” Mutwota says.

But all of this is changing as greener farms take root in the region, according to Dominic Omondi, an agriculture officer in southeastern Kenya who has witnessed the transformation under the DryDev program.

According to him, some of the technologies being used to boost dryland agroforestry in Kenya include mulching, manure application, surface water harvesting, and the use of zai pits, bowl-sized holes into which food crops are sown.

The zai pit technique breaks the hard surface pan, which has toughened up over time here due to desertification. The pan prevents food crops from reaching nutrients below the surface and also loses moisture quickly because water cannot seep into the ground.

“When I came here, most of the land was like the smooth surface of finished furniture,” Omondi says, meaning that the land was so denuded that the surface hardened to the level where it could not support plant life with weak root systems.

Mutwota inspects another kind of fruit he grows, papayas (known as ‘paw paw’ in the region). Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

The situation is worsened by the varied topography of the region, a combination of flat, hilly, or mini-plateau terrain, Omondi says. For instance, in Kalawa village where he lives, 20% of the land was denuded, he says.

“This has changed within two years since dryland agroforestry began,” he says, adding that whenever he visits farmers these days, he is rewarded with basketfuls of papayas, mangoes and bananas, treats that he could not get before.

More than 7,000 farmers in southeastern Kenya have adopted dryland agroforestry, according to Omondi. Mutwota, who is one of them, says prolonged droughts are one of the biggest challenges that have been troubling farmers here.

Other challenges include new pests and diseases, and access to markets for their produce. Until the DryDev program came to his village, he had no way of navigating these challenges except to sit back and wait it out.

At his 2.4-hectare (6-acre) farm, he now mixes food crops like maize, cowpeas, pigeon peas and sorghum with tree and fruit farming, like neem, mangoes, oranges and papayas.

While he fences his farm with brachiaria grass to battle pests, a water-harvesting unit at a section of his farm has enabled him to invest in the growing of greens. The grass is also a source of fodder for his livestock.

Rael Syombua, another farmer in the area, prepares a zai pit. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Studies by World Agroforestry on dryland agroforestry indicate that the technology is not only boosting food security for struggling farmers, it is also reducing environmental pollution, because farmers are cutting down on the use of chemicals and fertilizers.

But ensuring tree establishment and survival in the drylands has been very challenging because of the erratic and unreliable climate, as well as frequent droughts, says Leigh Ann Winowiecki, a soil systems scientist at World Agroforestry.

“The program is helping get degraded land back to health by restoring soil health, through conservation of water, reduced erosion and input of composted farmyard manure,” she says.

To assess how well adopting such agroecology practices works, a study that she co-authored monitored 17,520 trees in Kenya in 2018 and found that average seedling survival in the regions under research varied depending on the planted species and agroecological conditions at the study sites.

For instance, Kitui county had the highest average seedling survival at 53.4%, while Machakos and Makueni counties had an average survival rate of 32.2% and 43.3%, respectively.

The addition of manure increased seedling survival by 12% but varied across counties, while 35% of seedlings survived when they were watered.

Syombua holds a portion of her recent maize harvest. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

The study also reported that the fencing of farms increased seedling survival by 7.8%, and the use of zai pits also increased their survival.

Rael Syombua, another farmer from southeastern Kenya, adopted the use of zai pits and has seen the technique cut her costs: before, she had to hire a plow to prepare her 1.2 hectares (3 acres) for planting.

Even after spending her savings on that, her maize yield would be low. But when she adopted the zai pits, her average maize yield of less than three 90-kilo bags per season has doubled.

“When I used to hire a plow, I would be forced to follow it all day planting. But with zai pits, I can manage my planting time without being harassed by anyone,” says the 59-year-old mother of seven.

Dryland agroforestry has brought with it another benefit to Syombua’s village. According to her, strong winds that used to sweep through the village have been reduced in intensity due to the increased tree cover.

These winds would carry with them harmful dust particles, which would lead to respiratory disease outbreaks and eye infections, she says.

Syombua inspects the health of one of her Senna simaea trees: in addition to providing shade, this species is a good fodder crop and improves soils. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Scaling up dryland agroforestry in countries like Kenya requires increased research on which crops and trees can do well at a particular site, because of the varying climatic conditions and topography.

That is why community facilitators like Musyoki are armed with Regreening Africa‘s app, a data collection tool that makes it easy to map sites where dryland agroforestry is taking place.

According to Musyoki, app users record data and take photographs that help researchers innovate new ways to overcome the climate and topography barriers.

Musyoki has also issued farmers with identity codes that use GPS navigation to trace the location of individual farmers.

“It makes our work easier because we are able to know which crop is the best suited for the climatic conditions of a particular site, and which trees can easily survive so that farmers can be encouraged to plant them,” she says.

The U.N. General Assembly declared 2021 to 2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. On this front, the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS) says the country has committed to restore degraded lands with 5.5 million trees planted by 2030.

Mercy Musyoki, a community facilitator working with ICRAF, explains how the Regreening Africa app works with Dominic Omondi, an agriculture officer working in southeastern Kenya. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Much of this will be done through enrichment planting, which is an activity that involves replanting trees on areas that have been cleared of tree cover, and also through agroforestry, says Rose Akombo, the forest and climate change specialist at KFS.

Meanwhile, Manyi not only wants to double production at his farm in the next five years through dryland agroforestry, he also wants to make a home for various animal species.

“My honey production has increased because more bees are now visiting my trees to collect nectar. Some bird species are also coming to perch on my trees,” he says. “I feel like I have given life to a disappearing generation.”

This feature is part of Mongabay’s ongoing series about agroforestry.

Editor’s note, 8/30/21: the text was updated to clarify the positive effect of fencing on farms toward increased seedling survival.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Agroforestry is an ancient climate change solution that boosts food production and biodiversity, listen here:


Magaju, C., Winowiecki, L. A., Crossland, M., Frija, A., Ouerghemmi, H., Hagazi, N., … Sinclair, F. (2020). Assessing context-specific factors to increase tree survival for scaling ecosystem restoration efforts in East Africa. Land, 9(12), 494. doi:10.3390/land9120494

Eunice Manyi displays a ready-to-harvest pumpkin grown among their fruit trees. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.