NAIROBI, – As the world worst food security crisis continues across the Horn of Africa, including in Kenya, some smallholder farmers in the western part of the country are still feeding their families with last year abundant harvest.This is thanks to an agricultural programme focusing on reviving the fertility of the soil in the region.
According to David Mbakaya, a soil scientist at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), early findings from on going research established that the soil in Western Province was too acidic for maize production due to climatic factors and the overuse of nitrogenous fertilisers.
"From field trials we have discovered that the average Potential of Hydrogen (pH) levels in soil within the region stands at 4.5 – meaning that such soil can hardly support growing maize," said Mbakaya.
Scientifically, the neutral pH level, where it is neither acidic nor alkaline, is seven. Anything below seven is acidic, and above that is alkaline. However, maize can withstand mild acidity ranging from 5.5 to 6.5.
Research scientists at KARI – Kakamega branch, with funding from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, encouraged farmers to neutralise their soil using lime – a soil additive made from pulverised limestone or chalk. It is cheaply available in Kenya.
"I tried liming my land for two seasons, and the results are astounding," said Isaac Ochieng Okwanyi, a 29-year-old father of two who began farming after he was evicted from Nairobi’s Mathare slum in 2008 following the country’s post election violence.
"Just like any other young man, I thought that working in the city was the best way of earning a living. But after I lost everything during the violence, I decided to (come) back home and try my luck at farming," said Okwanyi from Nyangera village in Siaya in Western Province.
Using half of the 2.5 hectares of land he inherited from his father, Okwanyi began growing maize using the same phosphorous and ammonium fertilisers his parents had used for years before him. He harvested four 90-kilogramme bags of maize that season.
"I sold half of it because I also needed some money, and the rest served as food for my family and my parents for three months," he said.
But when his farm was selected for liming trials by the KARI team, Okwanyi was sceptical.
"The entire community, including myself, were very sceptical because we did not believe that what looked like cement (lime) could change anything," said Okwanyi.
But when it came to harvesting time, the villagers and Okwanyi changed their minds.
"Indeed, it rained as expected. And from what I saw, I can attest that I have never seen such a big harvest in this community," he said.
From one hectare of land he harvested 32 bags of maize, which was far higher than the four bags he had harvested from the same land the previous season.
"The proof of last year’s harvest is evident. I have since moved from a tiny grass thatched house to a nice semi-permanent house," he said pointing to his new house.
Together with five other farmers who had successful harvests, Okwanyi opened a grain bank at the local Sega market, where he and the other farmers withdraw small portions of their stored grain for domestic use.
"We created this bank because of security reasons. With the biting hunger at the moment, it is possible for people to break into our semi-permanent houses in order to steal maize," he said.
He has two bags remaining for his domestic consumption, while his next harvest is only a few weeks away.
There are currently 3,000 farmers from northern Kakamega and 2,000 from Siaya in Western Province on the trial.
Western Province is one of the regions in Kenya that has a stable rainfall all year round. But according to Dr. Marin Odendo, the senior research officer at the Socio-economics and Statistics Division at KARI, the region imports food for six months of the year.
"Most of the farmers in Kakamega are smallholder farmers. Yet this should not be the case because there is growing evidence that smallholder farmers hold the key to the world’s food security," said Odendo.
He is confident that in the near future there will be a huge increase in harvests in the region