Green farming gets a boost as Kenyans confront climate and war shocks

by Kagondu Njagi | @DavidNjagi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 April 2022 06:00 GMT

James Mugambi waters avocado saplings at his farm where he practices intercropping, in Muiru village, Kenya, March 20, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

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Efforts by farmers to prepare for climate change impacts may also help deal with other crises, from COVID-19 to the Ukraine-Russia war

*Growing numbers of Kenyan farmers are turning to natural methods

*Climate-smart approach can help farms withstand other shocks

*Ukraine war hits Kenya's fertiliser imports, coffee exports

By Kagondu Njagi

MUIRU, Kenya, April 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the past few years, James Mugambi's farm in central Kenya became a battlefield, with the farmer constantly fighting to save his crops from erratic rains, drought, pests and disease.

That was until he joined a local farmers' group with more than 100 others who have taught each other how to work around climate change instead of struggling against it.

To deal with delayed seasonal rains, for example, the farmers in the Mwimenyereri self-help group prepare their fields earlier than usual to take advantage of "booster showers" that come before the main rains, explained Mugambi.

Lasting only one or two days, the showers kickstart the germination process and help keep seedlings alive through dry spells as farmers wait for heavier, more sustained rainfall.

"It is not much, but it helps in reducing the risk of losses," said Mugambi, who grows coffee, corn, beans and other fruit and vegetables on his two-acre (0.8-hectare) farm in Muiru village.

Josphine Ndeke and James Mugambi taking stock of what they have cultivated as members of the Mwimenyereri farmers’ group in Muiru village, Kenya, March 20, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

As rising temperatures and extreme weather drive a surge in hunger, farmers around the world are looking for sustainable ways to grow enough food without degrading the soil and adding to the carbon emissions that are driving climate change.

Farming and climate experts say those efforts could also help buffer nations against other shocks to food supplies caused by events like natural disasters, global pandemics and wars - even those fought thousands of miles away.

Africa's farmers do not need to rely on costly chemical fertilisers, much of which are imported and vulnerable to supply disruptions, said Kwame Ababio, programme officer for climate change at the African Union.

A growing number are moving to agro-ecology, using natural methods - such as swapping synthetic fertiliser for manure - to increase yields, cut carbon emissions and recycle resources, Ababio said.

Conservation agriculture is also gaining ground, where farmers limit tilling to a minimum, rotate the kinds of crops grown on the same piece of land and use legumes as soil cover to retain nutrients and moisture, he added.

And, he noted, Africa has seen a rise in climate-smart agriculture, which focuses on adapting to changing weather patterns with methods like capturing and storing rainwater in ponds to use during dry spells.

"It is not one size fits all," Ababio said. "Governments need to look within their geographic area, see which one is fit for them and then adopt the (method) which is best for their economy or smallholder farmers."

Mary Wangari, works on her greens garden at her farm in Mukawa village, Kenya, March 22, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

In March, Kenya's agriculture ministry launched a four-year climate-smart agriculture plan, which includes shaping local policies to address climate change impacts and building a database of tried-and-tested farming techniques to bolster the industry's resilience.

FERTILISER SHORTAGES

Farmers around Kenya have been discovering that the nature-based techniques they are using to adapt to the pressures of climate change could also help them weather the fertiliser shortage caused by the war in Ukraine.

According to UN Comtrade data, last year Kenya imported fertilisers worth more than $33 million from Russia, making up about 10% of the total value of fertiliser imports.

But now local suppliers are struggling to get hold of stock and whatever is available has doubled in price, said Mugambi, the farmer in Muiru.

James Mugambi tends to the arrow root garden at his farm amid a fertiliser shortage due to the war in Ukraine, in Muiru village, Kenya, March 20, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

He has had to plant his latest batch of crops without fertiliser and expects lower yields as a result.

In a bid to minimise their losses, Mugambi and other members of the Mwimenyereri farmers' group have planted corn and beans in the same field - a practice known as inter-cropping which protects farmers if one crop sustains losses.

"Farmers here have been using inter-cropping for a long time and it has never failed to give them a harvest. I feel reassured having it on my farm," Mugambi said.

But it doesn't work for all crops - coffee, for example, is highly dependent on fertilisers, the farmer noted.

"What I am worried about is how to deal with fertiliser shortages if the (Ukraine) war persists," he added.

Jennifer Clapp, vice chair of the U.N. High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security, said in the short term countries like Kenya that rely on Russia for fertiliser will need to look for alternative sources and products - and that could be expensive.

"In the long term, countries should be thinking about diversifying their food systems and bringing food production into their local and regional territories to increase resilience to these kinds of shocks," said Clapp in a video call.

COFFEE CONCERN

Experts at EFG Hermes, an Egypt-based investment bank, said the Ukraine war was unlikely to cause major food shortages in East Africa because most of its supplies come from within the regional bloc.

"There are alternative food stocks that we can use," Kato Arnold Mukuru, head of frontier market research at the firm, told journalists in Nairobi last month.

That is little comfort to Josphine Ndeke, a coffee grower in Muiru who worries that even with plenty of food available, the fighting in Ukraine - a major buyer of Kenyan coffee - could leave her without enough money for daily necessities.

For Ndeke, the war being fought a continent away is a stark reminder that Kenyan farmers must look closer to home to protect their livelihoods from events that are beyond their control.

"We, especially women, rely on income from coffee sales to pay school fees for our children and feed our families," she said. "I feel terrified."

Related stories:

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Africa ‘not ready’ for climate stress, its scientists say

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(Reporting by Kagondu Njagi, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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