Kenyan farmers in Kisumu and Vihiga are embracing nature-positive agri-food systems

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By Dickson Kinuthia, Sedi Boukaka, Kristin Davis, Wei Zhang, Upeksha Hettiarachchi – International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

Nature-positive solutions are practices that sustainably provide food and livelihoods for farmers while ensuring that agriculture is a net positive contributor to biodiversity and nature. In Kenya, the CGIAR Nature-Positive Solutions (NATURE+) Initiative is working with farmers to implement these practices, especially through NATURE+ farms, where farmers come together to implement nature-positive solutions, which are being designed in Kisumu and Vihiga Counties.

On 4-5 December 2023, Initiative researchers visited the NATURE+ farms to explore whether games can be used to support capacity strengthening and experiential learning for better uptake of nature-positive solutions. A key objective of the visit was to learn about the “real-life context” for the games, including 1) Community attributes and individual attributes: identities, livelihoods, motivations, and mental models, 2) Governance: interactions and formal and informal rules and processes that shape how people make decisions, share power, and enforce agreed rules, and 3) Biophysical environment: state of shared resources and infrastructure.

Discussion with male members of Nature+ farm, Kisumu County, Photo credit: Upeksha Hettiarachchi













Discussion with female members of Nature+ farm, Vigulu, Vihiga County, Photo credit: Wei Zhang




Who are the nature-positive farmers and what do they want to achieve?

Before we explore the details of our field visit, let’s first understand the communities and farmers in the area. From May to July 2023, a quantitative baseline survey was conducted as part of the Nature+ Initiative. We surveyed 23 sublocations, but our story here zooms in on the specific sublocations hosting Nature+ farms: Agoro East, Jimo East (Kisumu County), and Vigulu (Vihiga County).

The survey results paint a picture of average households comprising 5.3 members. Notably, 32% of these households are led by women, slightly above the 2020 national average of 31%. The survey also highlights an educational gap, with just 34% of household heads having completed primary education, compared to 74% nationally in 2020. Unsurprisingly, agriculture forms the backbone of these households’ income, accounting for 39% to 47% of their gross earnings. The cultivation of staple crops like maize and beans dominates, alongside others like cowpea leaves, sweet potato or cassava.

Discussion with village elders and leaders, Kisumu County, Photo credit: Upeksha Hettiarachchi

Findings from the data and field visits also provide a window into the evolving relationship between these communities and their land as notable transformations are underway. In the Kisumu villages, land once dedicated to livestock rearing now lies fallow, while in Vigulu, the availability of land is increasingly pressurized as the average household manages small plots of land, usually not exceeding two parcels, totaling about 0.6 hectares. Nature-based solutions offer a sustainable path to address such land challenges. Indeed, measures to promote biodiversity, including creating pollinator-friendly habitats or reforestation and agroforestry, along with the implementation of efficient land-use practices such as permaculture, or sustainable water management through rainwater harvesting, could all help revitalize fallow land and maximize outputs of small plots. Engaging and capacity sharing with the local community in these practices is key to ensuring long-term success and sustainability.

The data, field visit observations and discussions with Initiative colleagues have also highlighted the importance of gender dynamics, roles, and responsibilities, underscoring their vital role in the project’s success. Our survey data shows that in Vigulu, Jimo East, and Agoro East, there is a preference for joint management of land and livestock among households. Nonetheless, it appears that male decision-makers generally achieve greater gains, and control over land and agricultural income remains predominantly in the hands of men, despite significant gender sensitization efforts through Nature+ and related projects.

In Agoro East, a Luo-dominated area, the land was traditionally used for grazing, an activity typically managed by men in Luo culture. This cultural practice leads to the perception that the proposed Nature+ farms are still male-dominated. Conversations with a group of men in Vihiga County revealed distinct ownership patterns for livestock between women and men. For instance, a male participant noted that even if a woman buys a cow with a loan from a savings group, it is still considered the man’s property, with decisions about its sale requiring the male head’s approval. Supporting this, data shows that women are more often the sole decision-makers for smaller livestock, like poultry.

Potential NATURE+ farm site in Agoro East, Kisumu County. Photo credit: Wei Zhang


Exploring the potential benefits of Nature-positive solutions and Nature+ farms

In the three sublocations, households show strong interest in nature-positive solutions. As indicated by the survey data, common practices include intercropping and crop rotation but are declining, reportedly owing to the decrease in farm sizes resulting from population growth, especially in Vihiga County. Additionally, there’s a significant emphasis on the use of manure as a natural fertilizer and the cultivation of native trees. These practices reflect a conscious effort by farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural methods in harmony with the environment.

In Kisumu, farmers plan to aggregate land to form NATURE+ farms. In Lyanaginga Village (Vihiga), farmers will jointly develop a demonstration farm from which neighboring farmers will learn nature-positive practices to replicate on their individual farms. During the scoping visit, farmers shared their motivation for joining NATURE+ farms: to enhance food production, thereby positively affecting nutrition, employment, migration, education, and environmental sustainability. They believe that making agriculture more economically viable, resilient, and environmentally friendly will create local job opportunities and reduce youth migration while protecting the environment they live in and rely on. Additionally, female participants of the scoping visit meeting also indicated an interest for their involvement in Nature+ to reduce gender inequality and gender-based violence, by changing perceptions about gender roles and encouraging collaborative work for shared prosperity on the farms.

Current adoption of nature-positive practices. Source: Survey data


So how can games help?

Experiential learning through games has the potential to support capacity building and learning in the NATURE+ farms. Interactive games offer a safe and engaging way to facilitate dialogue and learning about the key conditions for improving collective outcomes and what it means to individuals. Games can simulate relevant decision-making scenarios (e.g., buy or share resources, work individually or cooperate with uncertainty) and social dilemmas, such as the tradeoff between autonomy and collective benefits, and the willingness to trust and need to coordinate as potential obstacles to cooperation for efficient land management and sustainable farming practices.

The stylized game will capture key elements of coordination and willingness to share, trust, and cooperate voluntarily to balance socioeconomic and environmental outcomes. The design will feature a space shared by players for them to make decisions, with different currencies that can express time and resource constraint, yield values, and environmental goods that people care about.

Games, as a research tool, can also help us understand gender dynamics and gender-differentiated preferences, informing interventions to help shift traditional perceptions and promoting equitable decision-making in farming and communities. If designed properly, game-based experiential learning can make learning about collective actions for nature-positive solutions more accessible and impactful for the local communities. In 2024, the team will study to what extent experiential learning through games in the Nature+ Initiative can serve as a dynamic, participatory learning tool, bridging knowledge gaps, catalyzing thinking about existing societal norms, and empowering communities to adopt sustainable and equitable agricultural practices.

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