From biogas to better beans, water tanks to tree nurseries: looking for new ways to cope with the impacts of climate change
In Kenya, Farmers Helping Farmers currently works on the Northern Slope of Mount Kenya. High on the mountain, there is still a glacier, and as we go down the slopes, there are springs that well up, providing water to farms and the water-hungry export flower industry. As we move down the mountain, we see a decreasing water supply for the many smallholding farms. Further down the mountain, we even find a semi-arid area, followed eventually by the arid plains.
With climate change, the Mount Kenya glacier is shrinking, and the rains are becoming more irregular. The traditional long rains and short rains have become more unpredictable, and the arid areas are creeping towards the mountain. FHF has worked for many years in this area and has helped farm women adapt their food systems to remain productive in an increasingly semi-arid climate, which could be the future for a large number of small farms worldwide.
Here are some of the actions by FHF over the years to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Water tanks to store rainwater.
Each of these tanks store 5,000 liters and we have installed 1,000 of these tanks since 2002. This is 5.0 million liters of capacity. We install these tanks with a gutter system that collects water from roofs when it rains. In addition, the tanks can be used to store water from the various water distribution systems in the area, on farms with access to these systems.
Many of these systems will supply water sporadically, and many make water available at night. The big tanks are available to store water from either source. As droughts become longer and rainfall more irregular, these tanks store clean water for families while reducing runoff during rainfall.
Wood stoves to reduce fuel requirements.
FHF has identified a local supplier of small cooking stoves which use much less wood than the traditional method of the “three stone stove” (this involves putting 3 stones on the floor of the cooking room.
and building an open fire between them, with the pot on top of the stones). The controlled, enclosed fire of the new brick and steel stoves reduces firewood requirements to a quarter of that needed by the 3-stone stove. This means more trees are left to grow. And the stove pipe leads to a much healthier environment for the women to cook in.
To date, as of September 2021, FHF has installed 720 of these locally built stoves with funding from the Government of Canada, several PEI Rotary clubs, and FHF’s annual Holiday Campaign.
Drip lines are an economical way to grow vegetables in the off seasons between the rains. With crops planted at the holes along water lines, the water only goes in the area of plant roots. With sprinkler irrigation, up to half of the water is lost by evaporation, and the water that lands in the spaces between plants does little to nourish the crops. These “drip gardens” are practical where there is some water supply from springs higher on Mount Kenya. The gardens are very successful when supported by good technical advice. Always, the women do a careful job of planting, weeding and harvesting.
These dry-season irrigated gardens give a local supply of nutritious vegetables in the dry season and also boost the income of the women owning the garden. When installed at schools in support of feeding programs, the gardens provide vital nutrients to students during the dry season and periods of drought. These gardens are also an excellent way to introduce farming changes, such as new varieties of crops. As rain-fed crops become more undependable, drip-irrigation systems give a consistent crop.
Fast maturing crops.
A huge amount of work is being done at research stations in developing countries on improving food systems. Plant breeding has continued to make solid progress in developing crops that are more tolerant of dry conditions.
There also has been great progress on crops with better nutrition.
Frequently, however, these innovations do not get to the people who can use them. For many years, FHF has worked with Kenyan small farms to help them be more resilient by accessing new crop developments. Some examples:
● Earlier, as part of a CIDA project, we brought early maturing maize varieties to our Women’s Group farmers from the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), now the Kenyan Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO). These women are still aware of the importance of maize varieties.
● We brought vitamin-rich, high yielding Orange Fleshed Sweet Potatoes, again from research stations to our Women’s Group farmers, that have been widely propagated by our WG members and shared with their neighbors.
● “Irish” potatoes require good rainfall but mature faster than maize. Unica potatoes are a high-zinc, high yielding variety from the International Potato Center of Kenya (CIP). Under FHF’s GAC-funded More Food Better Food project, the Kendi Geetu Women’s Group is growing an acre of high-quality seed for further multiplication by all members of the group, and then distribution of subsequent generations to schools and other women’s groups.
● A recent success was the purchase of the Nyota variety of bean seed. This variety matures quickly and is higher in zinc and iron than normal beans, high yielding, and very “yummy”, as described by the Women’s Group members. These beans yielded up to 60 kg of dry beans from 2 kg of seed. This seed was planted recently in a poor rainfall season and out-yielded all other beans in the area. A good step for combating and adapting to climate change.
Drought resistant forages.
Alfalfa (Lucerne) is a deep-rooted, high protein perennial forage crop. We saw small amounts of alfalfa being grown but farmers had poor success in establishing this long live perennial. It is the best forage for milking cows with high available protein. We were trained farmers on correct planting , supplied small hand-push seeders, and set up a revolving seed supply. We now have many farmers with our partner Dairy Groups growing small plots of alfalfa. These plots can be harvested every five weeks, and a quarter acre will supply two cows. The alfalfa growth slows in dry weather, but when we visit the alfalfa plots in dry weather, there is a bright green plot of alfalfa while the surrounding area is dry and brown. Visiting these farmers and having the women tell us that they have doubled their milk production is most satisfying.
Biogas reduces fuel requirements and reduces CO2 emissions from burning wood. This is how biogas works: a biogas digester is installed and the farmer pours in two buckets of water/cow manure mix every day. The digester produces enough clean-burning methane every day to cook food for the household, and the digested material produces excellent compost. There is no need to collect firewood. The emissions from the cow manure are bound in the compost and do not gas-off. The only down side of these units is they are expensive; however, they pay for themselves in fuel savings. When FHF installed these earlier with CIDA funding at Wakulima Dairy in 2015, many farmers invested in these units after seeing the demonstrator units. FHF has installed 15 up-to-date units as part of the current GAC project. The supplier is working with the Dairies to develop a payment system for more of these units.
Vegetable grow bags are efficient users of water to produce green vegetables. These vertical gardens work well with very small plots of land and also use very small amounts of water to produce vegetables. There is a gravel core down the center of the bag where the water goes. There is little loss to evaporation and no loss from water seeping into the ground. FHF has installed hundreds of these bags and this how-to video has had over 16,000 views.
Tree nurseries. FHF has assisted our partners to plant thousands of trees which reduce soil erosion and absorb CO2. Under the current project the five tree nurseries produce about 20,000 trees each season. The trees from the earlier CIDA-funded nursery at Muchui Women’s Group populate many farms with fruit, shelter, timber and fodder trees. FHF conducted a project dedicated to fodder trees which, beingdeep-rooted, continue to produce in dry weather. The benefits of trees are well known.
Forage storage. Even in normal years, there is a boom-and-bust cycle in forage quality and availability for milking cows. When it rains, there is an abundance of good quality forage.
However, this forage cannot all be fed, it over-matures before it is needed for feed, and then there is little or no good forage to feed in the dry season.
Concurrent with this forage cycle is a milk production cycle; milk goes up; milk goes down. The family food supply and income also fluctuate accordingly. One good way to level out the supply of good quality forage is to store forage in plastic bags or pits as silage. FHF has done many, many silage training sessions, bought small silage choppers, and given out introductory silage storage bags. As a result, thousands of tons of forage have been preserved, making farmers less vulnerable to climate change, and increasing their dairy production and thus their family’s nutrition and income.
Conclusion Even though Farmers Helping Farmers is a small Prince Edward Island NGO, we have been able to work closely with our Kenyan partners to deliver programs with funding from the Canadian government (CIDA and GAC), many generous donors and Rotary service clubs in Canada. Through this work, FHF is continuously identifying and refining ways to adapt to the challenges of climate change in Kenya, to not only maintain but improve the food supply, nutrition, income and health of Kenyan farm families.