How Kenyan women are leading the agroecology revolution in Kenya

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Women in Kenya collaborating with CGIAR to implement agroecology and nature-positive agriculture practices are increasing agrobiodiversity, restoring landscapes and – crucially – setting examples of how women can improve their families’ health and biodiversity-based incomes.

By Rachel Kibui with special thanks to Dr. Carlo Fadda and Dr. Gloria Otieno, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

The villages in Nyando, Kenya, tell stories of communities where subsistence farming is based maize, sorghum, millet and other seasonal crops, which are generally planted on small monoculture plots. However, Evelyn Okoth’s farm stands out for its diversity, proving that farmers can manage their farms to grow more than one crop at a time.

As you enter the gate to Ms. Okoth’s farm, you are welcomed by a trellis covered in sweet potato vines that rise out of rich soil filled with several traditional maize varieties. Located in Agoro East village, in Kisumu County, richly fruited pawpaw trees welcome you. There are vertical gardens on which she has planted different types of vegetables including black night shade (managu), spider plant (sagetti), amaranth (terere), collard green (sukuma wiki) among others.

A portion of her land is dedicated to vermiculture. Vermiculture is the agroecological practice of using earthworms to compost organic waste, turning it into a low-cost but highly valuable fertilizer (or vermicompost and “vermijuice”) for her biologically diverse farm.

Circular economy

“I like calling my kind of farming a ‘circular economy’ where my activities are interdependent,” says Ms. Okoth. “I use water from my fishpond to irrigate vegetables [and] the waste from vegetables to feed poultry. I use the waste from my cows to make vermin compost and vermijuice as a fertilizer for my vegetables.”

An agroecological champion, Ms. Okoth is well-known in her village and beyond for her passion for conserving traditional food and seeds. She is a founder of the Kabudi-Agoro Community seed bank, which has 25 members, all women, who store and exchange various indigenous seeds.

Evelyn Okoth (L) and Alliance country representative for India Dr. Jai Rana (R) at the Kabudi-Agoro community seed bank in Kenya. Photo: S. Mattson/NATURE+

Agrobiodiversity haven

At her farm, Ms. Okoth cultivates 67 different varieties of beans, including nyayo, long yellow, short yellow and okuondo (an indigenous variety characterized by its grey colour and small size). She obtained some of the parent seeds from Uganda during farmers’ exchange visits while others were locally sourced.

Additionally, she multiplies 10 varieties of sorghum – some of which she obtained from the national gene bank and others from local, generations-old family farms.

“I am also multiplying seeds of five sweet potato varieties and two cassava varieties, and seven varieties of indigenous maize,” she says.

Ms. Okoth started farming in 2016 and had always wanted to do it in an ‘organized’ and profitable fashion to set an example for neighbors and peers.

Evelyn Okoth at her farm in Agoro East, Kenya. A champion of agrobiodiversity, Okoth’s farm includes 67 different varieties of beans, 10 of sorghum, 7 of maize, 5 of sweet potato and a large variety of native fruits and vegetables. Photo: R. Kibui/NATURE+

An ‘agroecological’ journey

Ms. Okoth’s journey toward agroecological farming began in 2018 when she first collaborated with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (now the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT). At the time, she had difficulty obtaining seeds, particularly the indigenous varieties that are resilient to harsh climate conditions, pests and diseases.

“I embraced agroecology and was among farmers trained on seed production, selection, saving and seed banking,” she recalls, adding that she is now reaping the benefits of agroecology.

From her vegetable garden, she earns about 250 Kenyan shillings (about USD 1.70) daily. She keeps 1,000 fish in her pond and sells them every eight months at KSH 200-250 (about USD 1.35 –USD 1.70) each. During our visit, she had 600 3-day-old chicks, which she would rear for four months and sell at up to KSH 1,000 (about USD 7) each. She estimates her annual income at KSH 600,000 (about USD 4,100).

Like many farmers, her main challenge is the lack of water, especially due to climate change and disrupted rainfall patterns. Her dream is to have an irrigation system to optimize production even during dry seasons.

Ms. Okoth’s message to the youth is that they should embrace agroecology as it is a sustainable way of farming that requires minimal capital and yields good income. Unlike conventional agriculture, which requires significant expenditures on synthetic inputs, agroecology relies on available natural resources.

Evelyn Okoth at her farm in Agoro East, Kenya. Ms. Okoth is an inspiration for women who want to embrace agroecology for financial independence, better diets and resilient food production.

“Young women should embrace agroecology and be economically independent instead of depending on men for every financial need,” she says.

By embracing agroecology, women, who are key in deciding what families eat, have higher chances of diversifying their diets, leading to healthier families.

“Young women can drive the scaling up of agroecology and bring together communities to embrace the same so that farmers can have diversified production,” says Dr. Carlo Fadda, the Research Director for Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture at the Alliance and the leader of CGIAR’s Initiative on Nature-Positive Solutions (NATURE+).

By diversifying production, Dr. Fadda says, farmers can mitigate risks and improve their incomes through selling surplus. Additionally, diversified foods enhance the variety of different nutrients, positively impacting people’s health.

Women: key to biodiversity conservation and management

Dr. Gloria Otieno, a Genetic Resources and Food Security Policy Specialist at The Alliance says studies have shown that women play a key role in conservation and management of biodiversity. Ms. Okoth is a true testimony of women’s contribution to agroecology, especially through the lens of conservation, recycling and biodiversity.

At Agoro East, the Alliance has worked with women who have conserved over 23 varieties of sorghum, 62 of beans and 5 of millet. By conserving these seeds women play a major role in mitigating risks related to the negative impacts of climate change.

Through NATURE+, Ms. Okoth is among farmers from Kisumu who have been part of training sessions on permaculture farming. Permaculture is an art and science for developing environmentally sustainable systems for human settlement.

NATURE+’s permaculture work in Kenya is is co-funded and implemented by Biovision Trust Africa. The Initiative aims to re-imagine, co-create, and implement nature-positive solutions-based agri-food systems that equitably support food and livelihoods while ensuring that agriculture is a net positive contributor to nature.

“While many youths prefer moving to the cities for white-collar jobs, the NATURE+ Initiative will create numerous opportunities for young people,” says Dr. Fadda.

The anticipated opportunities will include making and marketing compost, adding value to harvested crops, marketing of agricultural products, and transporting, among others.

As a field assistant working with the Nature Positive Initiative, Ms. Okoth leads by example in the quest towards agrobiodiversity and environmental conservation. Her farming model resonates well with the Initiative’s establishment of permaculture farms in Kisumu and Vihiga counties.

“Evelyn is already leading by example, in a model that should inspire more farmers and influence them to move from their traditional way of monoculture, towards agrobiodiversity. This is the trend towards restoration, recycling, conservation, and management of the environment while enhancing food and nutrition security,” says Dr. Fadda.

Inspiring Nature+ aggregated farms

Located a few kilometers from the Agoro East Nature + aggregated farm site, Ms. Okoth’s farm is a model of what agrobiodiversity at the aggregated farms will finally look like albeit at a larger scale. “The aggregated farms will be rich in agrobiodiversity to include crops, poultry, aquaculture, apiculture, and orchards among other agricultural activities,” says Dr. Otieno. Diversity she notes, does not only enhance food security and spreading of risks, but also increases opportunities for income generation.

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