NATURE+, partners, highlight need for soil sampling on degraded farms in Kenya

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Soil degradation from deforestation, erosion and chemical fertilizer overuse has decreased soil fertility in Kenya. To design targeted nature-based soil restoration and management interventions, the CGIAR Initiative on Nature-Positive Solutions tests soils and recommends wider implementation of soil analysis to underpin efforts to increase farm productivity.

Story and photos by Rachel Kibui, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

Special Thanks to Dr. Manoj Kaushal, soil scientist Alliance Bioversity and CIAT and Dr. Fredrick Baijukya, Farming Systems Agronomist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)

In Kenya’s Agoro East, Kisumu County, a vast piece of land buzzes with activity as farmers and scientists from The Alliance Bioversity and International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) collect soil samples. This effort is part of CGIAR’s Initiative on Nature Positive Solutions (NATURE+) in establishing permaculture aggregated farms.

Soil Health and Productivity Decline

Over the years, soil health and productivity have been declining due to factors like unsustainable land use practices, climate variability, mono-cropping, and excessive use of synthetic fertilizers. Despite noticing reduced production, many farmers, like Elizabeth Omusiele from Vigulu, Vihiga County, lack knowledge about soil testing’s importance and where to conduct it.

“We are thankful because through NATURE+, we will know the nutritional deficiency in our soils and the necessary action,” Omusiele said, adding she hopes initiatives like NATURE+ will help farmers understand their soil’s nutritional deficiencies and take appropriate action. She urges the government and development partners to encourage farmers to test their soil to develop targeted strategies for better production and food security.

The Alliance’s Dr. Manoj Kaushal (yellow hat) at the NATURE+ aggregated farm in Kisumu, Kenya in March 2024. By Rachel Kibui/Alliance

Evelyne Okoth from Agoro East admits barely having any knowledge on the importance of soil testing or engaging any expert in testing soils at her farm. She looks forward to learning from the NATURE+ Initiative about managing and restoring soil health and where to conduct tests. Evelyne recalls a time when the soil was teeming with life characterized by numerous earthworms, which have since almost disappeared.

Another farmer, Vitalis Onuong’a from Jimo East, also in Kisumu, attributes land adjudication in the 1950s to the region’s soil degradation. During colonial rule in Kenya, land adjudication was a process by which colonial authorities sought to establish ownership and control over land. This process had significant implications to the indigenous peoples of Kenya, as it often resulted in the displacement and dispossession of their ancestral lands. Onuong’a urges the government to survey rural areas, assess degradation, and advise farmers on proper land and soil management practices.

These farmers’ stories highlight the critical need for education and support in soil management. Initiatives like NATURE+ play a vital role in raising awareness and empowering farmers to enhance soil health, agricultural productivity, and environmental sustainability.

Massive Erosion, Top Soil Washed Away

Speaking during the field exercise, Dr. Manoj Kaushal, a soil scientist from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, observed that there was massive soil erosion in areas such as Jimo East and Agoro East areas of Kisumu County that has washed away much of the rich top soil into Lake Victoria.

“Many other organizations have been in this area and they encouraged the communities to plant trees, however, most of the trees were later cut down for firewood or charcoal,” Dr. Kaushal said.

He emphasized the urgent need for long-term and sustainable solutions to restore the soils in these areas, which are now characterized by deep gullies and bare lands with few shrubs. With the approaching rainy season, crucial for planting crops, he emphasized the importance of managing and testing the soils to determine necessary measures for enhancing fertility.

Soil sampling at NATURE+’s aggregated farm in Kisumu, Kenya in March 2024. By Rachel Kibui/Alliance

Dr. Kaushal noted that the loss of topsoil has resulted in a significant reduction of crop productivity for farmers in the area. He called for collaborative efforts involving farmers, county and national governments, policymakers, and researchers to address the issue. He urged policymakers to prioritize soil health in policymaking to ensure food and nutrition security.

Additionally, Dr. Kaushal highlighted the lack of adequate agricultural extension officers in the area, making it difficult for locals to access expert guidance. He recommended that the government should raise awareness, recruit more extension officers, and provide training at the village level on soil health, the importance of soil testing and nature-based actions that can be taken to make improvements.

Dr. Kaushal suggested that the government subsidize alternatives to chemical fertilizers, such as organic amendments and bio-based solutions, to help restore soils with nutrient deficiencies. This approach would contribute to the sustainable management of soils and enhance agricultural productivity.

Soil Regulates Biological, Physical Processes

Dr. Fredrick Baijukya, a Farming Systems Agronomist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), emphasized the role of soil in regulating biological and physical processes. He highlighted the adverse effects of climate change on soils, such as erosion, loss of moisture, and changes in the microbial population. “If the temperature rises above normal, it warms the soil and affects the composition processes within it because it reduces moisture and decreases the organic matter,” he said.

Dr. Baijukya added that high temperatures also affect the microbial population in the soil which mediates various processes such as decomposition, nutrient release, suppressing pests and diseases infestation among other things that microorganisms do in the soil.

Dr. Baijukya noted that small-scale farmers are particularly vulnerable, as they often lack the knowledge and resources to address soil degradation. He underscored the importance of educating farmers on soil management practices and promoting sustainable agriculture to ensure food security at local and national levels.

The Alliance’s Dr Manoj Kaushal (center) with experts from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation examine soil samples taken in Kisumu, Kenya in March 2024. By Rachel Kibui/Alliance.

NATURE+ and Restoration

Under NATURE+’s Work Package 3, RESTORE, the Initiative seeks to, among other interventions, restore degraded lands, which are often characterized by low biodiversity, low soil fertility, low carbon storage and low productivity. The anticipated benefits include increased above and below ground biodiversity and stored carbon, more resilient and healthier diets, diversified livelihood options and increased incentives to maintain biodiverse production landscapes.

The Initiative’s other Work Packages are also involved in seeking nature-based solutions to enhance productivity and improve natural systems.

Work Package 1, CONSERVE, seeks to enhance more effective conservation of interlinked agro biodiversity, water and soils systems while Work Package 2, MANAGE, collaborates with smallholder farmers to improve production by introducing NATURE+ innovations, learning and technologies for biodiversity, water and soil.

Work Package  4, RECYCLE, deploys activities to process rural waste into fertilizers that will lead to increased availability of nutrients and organic matter for soils, while Work Package 5, ENGAGE, is about fostering an enabling environment around nature-positive solutions through enhanced social inclusion, capacity development and policy.

The soil testing exercise will bring outcomes that will guide both experts and farmers towards the next steps in restoring fertility and consequently enhancing productivity in the areas of intervention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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