Kenyan small farmers adopt zero tillage to enrich infertile land

in Africa & the Diaspora/Agriculture & Urban Farming by

When their land stopped producing crops to sustain them, Kenyan farmers moved away from traditional methods to zero tillage.

For years, farming for 48-year-old Everlyne Juma resulted in an arduous gamble that barely produced enough food to feed her family of seven.  

On her acreage in Bungoma County, Western Kenya, the most she ever harvested per season were two, 90 kilogram bags (198.4 lbs) of maize that ran out before the next season arrived. Within one or two months post- harvest this time around, Juma’s family consumed all of their maize.

Juma’s issues were commonplace in rural, impoverished small-holder farming communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Once a fertile land, farmers relied on adequate rainfall, which enriched soil in order to grow crops conventionally. However, years of employing inorganic fertilizers, overuse of fields and weakened water-holding infrastructures  resulted in food insecurity, due to soil degradation.

“My land was degraded and hard, and plows were unable to work on it,” said Juma.

Meager harvests and degraded land were not the preserve of Juma only. Ferdinand Makhanu, a 44-year-old father of  eight, faced similar dilemmas. On one acre, the most he ever harvested were six 90 kilograms bags of maize, and less than one bag of beans.  

Failure to provide enough food for his family destabilized his marriage, and at times, his wife went back to her parents in search for food.  On some days, his expansive family survived on porridge only.

Resuscitating the Land

Like others, Juma’s debilitated agrarian lifestyle prompted a gradual shift from conventional farming to conservation agriculture (CA).  

The shift to CA advocates for zero tillage, a land cultivation method that uses permanent soil cover (cloaking unused soil year-round with organic materials, like mulch, to protect it) and other ways to minimize soil disturbance.

While zero tillage has unsettled conservative farmers in the county, who staunchly believe that land requires tilling before any planting is done, farmers like Juma continued on and implemented the practice.

When Juma first tried CA on her farm in 2012, she was pariah among fellow women agriculturalists, who chose to avoid it. They told her that the method would permanently damage the soil, and nothing planted there afterwards would survive. However Juma ignored them. Applying the basic CA agronomic techniques she learned, Juma planted her maize.

In her first harvest of 2012, she yielded five bags of maize. In 2013, her acre of land produced 12 bags. “I’ve seen a big improvement in my yields. Today, I get 18 bags of maize and my family is food secure,” said Juma.

Everlyne Juma working on permanent cover soil, a method where farmers cloak their land to protect it from soil erosion.

Moving from Traditional Farming to Effective Methods

When Makhanu saw the results from CA trials on his neighbor’s farm in 2010, he began to copy the practices without hesitation. “The personal challenges I faced could not let me be suspicious of CA, but other people here were,” he said.

At the neighbor’s estate, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) were demonstrating the Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume Cropping Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa (SIMLESA), a CA program, on behalf of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Makhanu applied basic CA methods like spraying herbicides on weeds to destroy them during land preparation instead of plowing, digging holes, and leaving harvested crop residue to decay. To add more nutrients to his land, Makhanu maintained a permanent soil cover with organic matter that he usually fed to livestock, and grew a shield for crops from a legume patch.  

“I noticed the labor involved was minimal as well as the cost of production,” said Makhanu. After first implementing CA, he harvested 15 bags of maize and 2 bags of beans from one acre of land.

According to KALRO researcher and head of Kenya’s SIMLESA program,  and, Charles Nkonge, adopting CA technologies and practices increases productivity, without hampering the environment’s ability to meet the needs of future generations. “In drier areas CA practices improve soil moisture retention when compared to practicing conventional tillage, and thus crops do better,” said Nkonge.

Continued application of CA procedures by Juma and Makhanu has resulted in progressive yield increases for both of them. Today, Makhanu harvests 30 to 35 bags of maize on an acre and projects future yields may increase to 50 bags.

“This (SIMLESA) program has really taken off and helped our farmers,” said Isaac Amusavi, an officer, employed by Bungoma County government to give agricultural advice to 2000 farmers at ward level.  

From when the project began in 2009, Amuvasi witnessed average yields increase from one 5 to 90 kilogram bag of maize per acre 18 bags of maize per acre. As for bean crops, they have soared from one 90 kilogram bag an acre to three or four bags.  

Amidst the success, traditional agriculturists refuse to use herbicides to kill weeds during terrain preparation. Thus, creating a slow the roll out of CA practices to more farmers, according to Amusavi.

GMO fueled Green Revolution

Juma on her land that now yields more crops.

In Africa, CIMMYT has collaborated with Monsanto Company in production of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program. An experimental initiative to create genetically modified corn that is ideal for drought hit regions, WEMA is part of Africa’s Green Revolution campaign to produce more crops for food security.

Biosafety non-profit watchdogs like the African Centre for Biodiversity view introduction WEMA maize varieties as a ploy by Monsanto, to subtly introduce genetically modified and hybrid maize into the continent and open a market in Africa.

Another concern is Monsanto’s use of Africa as a location to proliferate experimental agriculture with little or inadequate oversight; and on indigenous and diverse plants, according research carried out by Matthew A. Schnurr, a food studies scholar.

Outside of Kenya, countries like Germany, Peru, Zimbabwe and France have banned or prohibited Monsanto from cultivating, producing or importing GMO crops.

In the United States alone, there are over 415 lawsuits pending against Monsanto that are cancer-related. Monsanto created Agent Orange, the cancer-causing spray used by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam war to kill Vietnam’s dense vegetation on battlegrounds. Currently, weed scientists are battling an herbicid made by the company called dicamba, that is damaging crops.

Despite Monsanto’s controversial position around the world, it remains a dominant force in seed production and agriculture.

The numbers of farmers with successful harvests, like Juma and Makhanu’s, surges. About 20 women farmers who were initially skeptical about adopting CA, have seen Juma’s success and requested her to train them on it. With the surplus, Juma has also won her husband’s respect because she pays her children’s school fees. .

While also getting more climate change training by universities like Egerton, Makhanu is also widely sought all over Kenya, training farmer groups on CA. He has been featured on a Kenyan TV program called Shamba Shape Up, which profiles the country’s most outstanding farmers.

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James Karuga is an award winning print and video journalist from Kenya who is
passionate about covering science, agriculture, entrepreneurship, and
innovation in East Africa.

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