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Re-thinking Farming as Climate Change Continues to Ravage Africa

By Esther Ngumbi

On a hot and humid day along the Kenyan coast, the clouds turn black. The signs are ripe for the long awaited downpour. Any moment now, rain will fall. The anticipation begins to grow. Hours turn into days, days into weeks, and weeks into months. But nothing comes—not even a drizzle. Instead, farmers watch helplessly as their crops wither and die.

The farmers on the southern coast of Kenya are not alone; many across East Africa haven’t seen rain for over three months. Around the world, record-breaking temperatures and severe droughts caused by climate change are affecting ecosystems, agriculture, and society's ability to produce the food we need.

The most affected by the ongoing drought are the poor, who depend on farming, fishing, or pastoralism for their livelihoods. They also depend on rain for agriculture. Without rain, there is no food—and 80 percent of African agriculture relies on rain.

For this reason, African farmers need resources and tools to enable them to adapt to climate change. Most importantly, they need to learn practical “climate-smart” agricultural practices that will help to mitigate the effects of drought.

To that end, my brother and I co-founded Oyeska Greens, a young startup that empowers smallholder farmers and helps drive agricultural innovation along the Kenyan Coast by training farmers to adapt their agricultural practices to the changing climate. As a result of this work, Kwale County selected us as the official host for its 2016 United Nations World Food day celebrations. Working closely with several stakeholders in agriculture, including the Kwale County government and their agricultural extension officers—who provided us with the latest information on the best practices we needed to use for the crops we were growing—and private partners like Syngenta and TechnoServe, we prepared our farm to reflect the theme of the day: “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” One thousand farmers from across Kwale County converged on our farm to learn about novel approaches and effective solutions for coping with drought.

The main takeaways for the farmers were:

1. Plant drought-tolerant varieties.

Drought tolerant varieties have been bred to grow with minimum water. These varieties can better endure drought, therefore protecting farmers against the risks of failed rains. For the Kenyan coast, such varieties include amaranth green, locally known as “mchicha,” sorghum, pigeon peas, cassava, sweet potatoes, and Syngenta’s Kilele F1 tomato variety. Apart from being drought tolerant, crops such as the amaranth greens are rich in nutrients and offer smallholder farmers a solution to both malnutrition and a changing climate.

2. Diversify across the agricultural system.

By diversifying their crops and keeping resilient livestock and poultry breeds, farmers can spread their risk, increase their income sources, enrich their families’ nutrition, and strengthen their resilience to climate change. To showcase the importance of diversification, we planted a cornucopia of crops on our training farm—including sorghum, maize, sweet potatoes, cassava, cowpeas, green grams, bell peppers, amaranth green, and kales—to show how these crops can survive drought and generate income for smallholder farmers by using better agricultural practices. This showed visiting farmers who rely on just one or two crops the benefits of diversification.

3. Invest in water, manage it wisely, and, if possible, switch to drip irrigation.

Investing in water infrastructure and technologies ensures that farmers can irrigate their crops when rains fail, and promotes resilience against climate change. Water wells, water tanks, and water pans are some of the ways farmers can store rainwater. Stored water can be used to irrigate crops and provide water for the animals during droughts. Switching to efficient technologies such as drip irrigation, a technology that precisely and slowly delivers water directly to the plant root zone, also allows farmer to efficiently use the available water resources.

4. Farmers should employ greenhouses and other creative farming practices.

Greenhouses serve as protected spaces that protect crops from the scorching sun. They also offer small, manageable spaces that can be used to grow food, ensuring that families are food secure.

We showcased other creative farming approaches as well, such as sunken bed gardens and the practice of mulching. Sunken beds, which are dug to sit slightly below the soil surface, are designed to capture maximum rainfall and retain moisture, thus lessening the need for irrigation. They can also serve as alternative spaces that families can use to grow enough vegetables to provide at least a meal a day.

Learning about and implementing climate-smart farming practices are two different things. Farmers who attended the celebrations were very receptive to the knowledge we offered, and many promised to put what they had learned into practice on their own farms. But it will be hard for farmers to adopt these new techniques and practices without available water if the rains continue to fail.

Helping farmers grow food in a changing climate is the right thing to do. The Kwale County government, the Kenyan government, agribusinesses, private institutions, and all other stakeholders have roles to play. They must all commit to providing farmers with permanent sources of water in order to break once and for all the recurring effects of drought. Combined with ensuring that farmers have access to new information on current agricultural practices, we can take the impact of this educational day to the next level. Effective drought mitigation approaches need to be scaled up and the resilience of individual farmers and communities needs to be strengthened through proactive and long-term adaptation methods. 

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Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2016 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 Food Security New Voices Fellow  at the Aspen Institute.

[Photos courtesy of Oxfam East Africa]

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