Promoting permaculture for sustainable food systems and environment conservation

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By Rachel Kibui with special thanks to Dr. Gloria Otieno and Lillian Aluso (The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT)

CGIAR’s Nature-Positive Solutions Initiative and partners recently began working with farmers in the Kenyan counties of Kisumu and Vihiga to design permaculture production practices. Permaculture – a form of agriculture that is based on working in tandem with natural systems – is an approach that can help increase production and conserve and restore nature. It is essentially a science and art for developing sustainable systems for human settlement.

The move toward permaculture comes at a time when food production and food security are threatened by climate change, depleted soil fertility, and high inflation that hits low-income communities in Kenya especially hard. Experts consider permaculture as a viable option for Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) such as these two counties.

(Famous for Lake Victoria, Kisumu’s major economic activity is fishing but experts believe diversification to agrobiodiverse farming is vital for nutritional and economic improvement. While some parts receive substantial rain, other parts are considered ASALs. Vihiga is peri-urban and borders Kisumu characterized by highly subdivided landscapes where farmers generally own no more than an acre – 0.4 hectares – of land.)

Farmers from Vihiga, Kenya take a transect walk to map resources within their villages. Photo R. Kibui (Alliance)

“We are looking forward to not only starting permaculture as a group but also individually in our own farms,” said Eddy Ouko, a farmer from Nyando in Kisumu. “Recalling how our forefathers grew and consumed indigenous foods shapes our thinking, that we must go back to traditional foods, as they are more resilient to climate change, and rich in nutrients. We are ready to learn, and embrace maximum utilization of our land.”

Economic diversification, too

In early July, experts from NATURE+ and Biovision Africa worked with more than 200 farmers in Kisumu and Vihiga to design site-specific permaculture plans. The training included transect walks around farms to identify flora, fauna and natural resources including water sources. Farmers made diagrams of how a permaculture farm would look on their land (see top photograph). In collaboration with farmers, experts will fine-tune designs and help establish permaculture farms.

The implementation of these nature-conscious systems is timely from a market perspective. Increasingly, consumers are opting for food free from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, while simultaneously pursuing healthier diets due to the increase in non-communicable diseases like diabetes that are due, in part, to unhealthy eating habits. The expectation is that the growing demand for nature-friendly food will create incentives for farmers to pursue – and capitalize on – nature-positive farming practices.

A farmer explains to experts on cassava crop and its local uses to NATURE+ scientists. Photo: R. Kibui (Alliance)

Dr. Gloria Otieno, a genetic resources and food security policy specialist at The Alliance, said there were efforts to establish aggregated farms as fragmentation had badly affected production.

“An area like Nyakach in Kisumu county has badly been affected by climate change, pests and diseases leading to low productivity. We are looking at establishing about 50 acres of aggregated farms to be designed to enhance sustainable production,” Dr. Otieno said.

The farms, she added, will include various activities such as beekeeping, fish and poultry rearing, trees, crops including legumes and tubers, among others.

“We will ensure as much diversity as possible so that we can achieve food and nutrition security and enjoy economies of scale through aggregated farms concept,” Dr. Otieno said.

A return to cultural roots

Culturally, she said, the Luo people had aggregated farms and places were designated for homes, crops and livestock. However, the colonial era discouraged community-land ownership, which led to land fragmentation. “We are going back to the traditional way as a way of conserving culture, enhancing cohesion among community members and improving productivity,” said Dr. Otieno.

Ms. Lillian Aluso, a research associate at The Alliance based in Vihiga, said women and youth will be highly involved in establishing permaculture aggregated farms.

“The youth will be involved in activities such as recycling and composting, which are integral in the NATURE+ Initiative, thus creating employment and subsequently empowering households,” said Ms. Aluso.

Additionally, men and even elders will also be involved in a bid to enhance a participatory process, learning and efficiency in making decisions.

A farmer from Vihiga, Kenya shows a herb that is inserted in the nose to treat flu symptoms. Photo: R. Kibui (Alliance)

Unlearning conventional agriculture

The major challenge though, is in having farmers ‘unlearn’ the conventional ways of farming and going back to the culture of organic, nature-friendly agriculture. For this reason, she noted, a lot of training is needed. Unlike Kisumu where there is still some community-owned land, Vihiga is characterized by small farms amid a dense population.

Nicholas Syano, a consultant working with The Alliance, said that since humans are to blame for environmental degradation, they must also be the ones to reverse the situation. This, he added, can only be achieved by understanding and applying permaculture principles and ethics.

“Farmers need to embrace the concept of integrated farms as a way of ensuring sustainable production, better yields and safer foods. This will also be a way to strengthen their social fabric,” said Syano, who is the CEO of Makueni-based Drylands Natural Resources Center.

Addressing low yields

Farmers hailed the initiative saying they have long been having low yields. They expressed optimism that permaculture will aid in not only enabling them have better yields, but also earn more money.

“I am hopeful that this initiative will be successful and that beyond the aggregated farms, we will also learn and implement permaculture practices at our small farms,” said Evelyne Okoth, a farmer from Kisumu.

Thomas Babu, a farmer from Vihiga said he hoped to learn the beneficial trees and other crops that can enhance soil fertility.

He added that he would benefit from training on how to make organic compost at his farm as a way of reclaiming soil fertility.

“If I learn how to make organic manure, I will use some in my farm and sell the excess to make money,” said Babu. “Its about having ample food for family, money in our pockets, and being able to comfortably cater for our children’s education expenses.”

By working in unison with other farmers, and with guidance from experts, Babu said he was hopeful that at the Vigulu sublocation, where implementation of the restorative program will begin, will be an example to other regions in the county and region.

NATURE+ will also be implemented in Kajiado and Turkana counties. Globally, it is also implemented in Burkina Faso, Colombia, India and Vietnam.

The Initiative aims to achieve a 30% increase in food, land, and water productivity, a reversal of soil degradation, and a 50% increase in systems biodiversity. It is also hoped to see more than 916,000 hectares of forest protected from deforestation and restored, and more than 1.8 million hectares of land placed under improved management.

This will be done through conservation of agrobiodiversity, management of diversity, water and soil, enabling resilient restoration, creation of nature-positive recycling solutions and building an engaging and enabling environment.

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