Improve food security in Homa Bay County, Kenya
Published on: November 6, 2022
Homa Bay County with its 16 islands and the shores of Lake Victoria hosts unique fauna and flora and an impressive array of physiological features with a great aesthetic value of nature. Besides agriculture, fishing is one of the main activities because of its proximity to Lake Victoria. WABLE is implementing a water project to facilitate access to clean water, reducing waterborne diseases. The project area covers Mbita and Suba North sub-counties.
The challenges in Mbita and Suba North
A context analysis was conducted in the project area to establish the community’s social, economic, and environmental challenges. The study’s objective was to help design a regenerative model farm to serve as a farmer training platform. This is to enhance the adoption of regenerative farming practices and sustainable management of the water cycle in agricultural systems for improved productivity, resilience, and sustainability.
The context analysis found that most respondents were aged between 35-55 years, and their livelihood and main occupation was farming. The average size of the farm is at most one hectare. Land ownership is mainly family owned and with title deeds. Most households have access to water mainly from the lake due to inadequate funds to access purified water.
The output of the context analysis;
- Food harvested on the farms was found to last less than 10 months.
- Low productivity is attributed to inadequate access to extension services.
- Farming activities were mainly affected by prolonged dry periods or drought, as reported by 50% of the respondents.
- Only 14% of the respondents have had access to extension information through NGOs.
- There is a relatively low yield for maize and beans. 5 bags and 1 bag (90kg per bag) per acre, respectively.
- There were no improved breeds of livestock reported.
- All households rely on firewood for cooking and heating, which brings about a high rate of deforestation.
- Soil conservation could be stronger, with most conservation measures not well maintained.
- There were no efforts by the respondents to practice water resource conservation.
- Soil health was below average, with low organic matter, poor structure, no soil cover, and very low invertebrate life.
- Respondents lacked knowledge of regenerative agriculture.
Setting up the basics of a regenerative farm
Considering reports from the field, regenerative agroforestry practices have been proposed to improve soil conditions for improved crop productivity. The guiding principles of regenerative model farm design include knowing your context, covering the soil, minimizing soil disturbance, increasing diversity, maintaining continuous living plants and roots, and integrating livestock into the system. Applicable standards for regenerative agriculture systems consider integration, tree density on the farm, having multiple species on the same farm, and the need to have species whose growth occupies different canopy sizes.
Setting up the model farm will involve selecting regenerative agricultural practices to promote additional benefits in terms of food and income through sustained high crop productivity. The model farm will be established to showcase best practices in regenerative agroforestry, where
- Long-term trees and shrubs will be integrated into the cropland;
- Compost systems will improve soil structure and stability, recycle nutrients, improve soil water retention capacity, stabilize volatile nitrogen, convert wastes into resources and suppress soil-borne diseases;
- Cover crops will be grown as creeping plants to cover the ground surface between rows of crops;
- Crop rotation will involve a systematic approach of growing different annual and herbaceous perennial crops in succession in the same field in different cropping seasons;
- Minimum tillage where soil disturbance is minimized such that it will only occur at the time of planting; and
- Livestock integration, where fodder will be produced and used in feeding livestock while utilizing animal waste as manure to improve soil fertility.
Creating food security in the region
About 50% of the population of Homa Bay County is food insecure. The food shortage peaks between July and August and between December and March, when food stocks have been depleted. Most of the land is being used to produce subsistence food crops. The County has the potential to produce more than it can consume. Only 11% of the land is used for cash crop production.
The main crops grown include maize, beans, sorghum, finger millet, banana, sweet potatoes, cotton, soya beans, tomato, and assorted vegetables. Livestock kept include kienyeji chicken, goats, sheep, and zebu cows.
Considering the challenges observed during the context analysis, WABLE should invest in or find funding for activities that promote regenerative agriculture practices among their target farmers to be demonstrated at the model farm. Farmers should be supported with start-up materials and also consider short-term enterprises to enable farmers to earn from their farming activities on time.
How to stop soil depletion and rebuild soil health?
To show how to improve yields, productivity, and food security in the region, the Model Farm works with a few simple characteristics that directly influence the soil quality, for instance:
- Maintaining soil cover
Farmers are advised to keep the soil covered as much as possible. Crop residues on the field protect the soil from erosion and limit weed growth throughout the year. This is opposed to conventional farming practices, whereby farmers remove and burn crop residue, and as a consequence, the soil is left bare, so it is easily washed away by rain or is blown away by the wind.
Cover crop canopies reduce the impact of raindrops and decrease the breakdown of the soil structure and soil aggregates, which greatly reduces soil erosion and runoff, and improves water infiltration. Holding the topsoil in place reduces the risk of environmental pollution and contamination of water sources by nutrients, pesticides, and pathogens.
- Prioritizing perennial plants
Planting perennial crops where the plant and its roots remain in the ground for many years instead of being pulled up after a season contributes to healthy soil with more complex, symbiotic relationships with the organisms around them. Additional benefits of perennials include:
- Erosion control: Because plant materials (stems, crowns, etc.) can remain in place year-round, topsoil erosion due to wind and surface water runoff is reduced
- Water use efficiency: Because these crops tend to be deeper and more fibrously rooted than their annual counterparts, they can hold onto soil moisture more efficiently while filtering pollutants (e.g., excess nitrogen) traveling to groundwater sources
- Nutrient cycling efficiency: Because perennials take up nutrients more efficiently from their extensive root systems, reduced amounts of nutrients need to be supplemented, lowering production costs while reducing possible excess sources of fertilizer runoff.
- Light interception efficiency: Early canopy development and longer green leaf duration increase the seasonal light interception efficiency of perennials, an important factor in plant productivity
- Carbon sequestration: Because perennial grasses use a greater fraction of carbon to produce root systems, more carbon is integrated into soil organic matter contributing to increases in soil organic carbon stocks beneficial to the plant nutrient uptake.
- Tree integration in agricultural systems (agroforestry)
Last but not least, all households rely on firewood for cooking and heating, which brings about a high rate of deforestation. Integrating fast-growing tree species provides a welcome shade to protect soil, livestock, and farmers from the sun. It also offers the farmer firewood from his land.