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Can Kenya tap its water to double its maize?

by Isaiah Esipisu | @Andebes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 28 February 2014 07:15 GMT

A farmer stands with an irrigation rig in Kenya. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Isaiah Esipisu

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To improve food security in the face of climate change, Kenya has embarked on an ambitious irrigation farming project on one million acres of land, aiming to double its maize production in five years

NAIROBI, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In an effort to improve food security in the face of climate change, the government of Kenya has embarked on an ambitious irrigation farming project on one million acres of land, a move that will see the country double its maize production in five years time.

“This move is a deliberate confrontation of the monster that is climate change. The earlier we do it, the better for us because climatic patterns are changing from the known to unknown and we can no longer rely on it,” said James Nyoro, a special advisor on agriculture for Kenya’s government in an interview at a function organised by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The East African region is at the moment experiencing heavy rainfall which unexpectedly started in early February, more than a month ahead of schedule. Nyoro believes the out-of-season rainfall will affect the long rains usually expected in March and April.

“We have no choice but to find a way of adapting to such shifts in climatic conditions. And one of the ways is by investing in irrigation agriculture,” he said.

The one million acre irrigation project, which is expected to cost 250 billion Kenyan shillings ($3 billion) over five years, was launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta in January, to address the recurring problem of food insecurity in the country.

The project will irrigate government-owned land in semi-arid Tana River and Kilifi counties in the coastal region. The land was acquired from the Galana Game and Trading Company in 1989 by the government through the Agriculture Development Corporation (ADC).

According to the ADC plan, 500,000 acres of the farm will be put under maize production, 200,000 acres under sugarcane, and 300,000 acres will be set aside for other activities such as beef cattle, game animals and fish ponds, among others.

“This will boost the country’s food production to up to 45 million (90 kilo) bags of maize per year, from the current 20 million bags,” Felix Koskei, agriculture cabinet secretary, said during a media briefing at his Kilimo House office in Nairobi.

The Cabinet secretary said that water for irrigation will be drawn from River Sabaki, which a feasibility study conducted by three Israeli firms says will have sufficient water to support the project.

Soil analysis conducted by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute shows that the area has a potential for high productivity with a possible capacity to produce between 30 and 50 bags of maize per hectare per year.


According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Kenyans consume an average of 3.72 million (90 kilo) bags of maize every month, totaling 44.64 million bags per year, against an average production of 20 million bags per year. This consumption rate has been growing every year in part due to a growing population, which now stands at 40 million.

The deficit is usually filled by imported maize from neighbouring countries, particularly Tanzania, and Uganda.

But with the shifting climatic conditions, experts warn that many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are going to experience more seasons with poor harvests. “We must expect tougher conditions ahead of us, which gives us a reason to invest in appropriate adaptation projects,” said Dennis Garrity, the UN Drylands ambassador during the World Congress on Agroforestry in February.

Crops produced from the one million acre irrigation project will be stored at the National Cereals Produce Board, which is the country’s grain reserve, then released to Kenyans during time of need, Koskei said.

According to Nyoro, Kenya has many other potential areas that could be targeted for food production through irrigation.

The latest site, which experts say has the potential to produce enough food to feed the entire country, is drought-ravaged Turkana County, whose residents are facing starvation save for relief food being distributed in the region by the government and humanitarian agencies.

The county has been found to have two huge underground aquifers that experts say could supply the country’s water needs for the next 70 years at its current rate of population.

“The government is planning to set up another irrigation project in Turkana, using the underground water, as a way of adapting to climate change, and exploiting the natural resources,” said Nyoro, the government advisor on agriculture.

So far, the government has contracted Davis and Shirtliff, a multinational water company, to begin the drilling before a strategy for irrigation is put in place, said John Nyaoro, the director of water resources at the Ministry of Environment.

Though Kenya has opted for a large-scale irrigation project in Tana River and Kilifi, a 2013 study by Jennifer Burney of Stanford University suggests that smallholder irrigation also has great potential to reduce hunger, raise incomes, and improve development prospects, particularly in the developing world.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, only four percent of the arable land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated. This means that the rest of the land is particularly susceptible to climate change-linked variation in rainfall patterns, which can produce droughts and floods.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi and specialising in agriculture and environment reporting. He can be reached through

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