Why are these Kenyan farmers embracing nature and biodiversity?

Share this to :

(Top photo: Some of Vigulu, Kenya’s farmers participating in NATURE+ (L-R): Elizabeth Anyoso, Nicholas Adalo, Jackline Imali, Sammy Ambasa and Elizabeth Omusiele.)

Farmers in a Western Kenyan village are dedicating their land, time and knowledge to restore land productivity with local biodiversity. Why are they positive about nature-based solutions?

By Sean Mattson, NATURE+ & The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

LYANAGINGA VILLAGE OF VIGULU, Kenya – First-time visitors to this small community in Vihiga County are usually marveled by how the farming community works the hilly landscape. Tree-lined trails wind around massive boulders, connecting one tiny plot – about 0.16 hectares (0.4 acres) on average – and farmers’ homes.

The setting, including tiny vegetable gardens set atop the boulders, sharply contrasts with much of the nearby agricultural landscape of mostly treeless monocropping farms on highly degraded soils. Much agricultural land is abandoned because of the high costs of industrial seeds and chemicals now needed to coax a few calories from the exhausted earth.

Vigulu farmer Nicholas Adalo Ambaja and his neighbors tell visitors not to be deceived: his community’s land has seen better days and production has suffered after years of misguided management.

Nicholas Adalo, a farmer collaborating with NATURE+ in Vigulu, Kenya.

“I want to take away the trees that destroy the soil and plant trees that improve it,” said Adalo, 55, lamenting how many traditional farming practices were abandoned for quick profits that degraded the land. Native tree species can put nitrogen into soil, stabilize land, consume less water and provide homes to pollinators including birds, insects and bats.

“We didn’t know the value of the crops we abandoned,” Adalo says. “People were brainwashed into believing that maize was the thing.”

Adalo and 50 neighbors recently joined the CGIAR Nature-Positive Solutions Initiative to restore their land’s health and productivity with local agrobiodiversity. The farmers created a demonstration permaculture farm to learn about and replicate several nature-positive activities on their nearby farms. They grow many once-abandoned local crops and trees and improve practices to prevent erosion and to improve natural soil fertility.

With their sights set on the growing market demand for healthy, locally produced food, they expect their farms to help meet their families’ nutritional needs and to sell surplus outside the community.

“By joining together we’ve learned a lot from each other,” said Elizabeth Anyoso, 55, who now regrets using a credit system for hybrid maize seeds and chemical fertilizers, which pulled her and many others into debt spirals that wrecked their land and bottom lines. “We have lost biodiversity, our soils are degraded, and we’ve used too many chemicals. We want to go back to nature.”

Vigulu farmers Elizabeth Omusiele and Elizabeth Anyoso discuss nature-positive farming at the community center in Vigulu, Kenya. Credit: Sean Mattson/NATURE+

Fruits of community seed banks

When Vigulu’s farmers decided to rejuvenate production of indigenous varieties of leafy vegetables – and local varieties of maize, sorghum, finger millet, pumpkin, sweet potato, cassava and fruit trees – they unsurprisingly discovered that industrial seed providers were of little help. They went door-to-door asking the few neighbors who still grew these crops to share seeds. They found more planting material in the national gene bank and other institutions.

Lillian Aluso, a researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, at the Vihiga seed bank. Credit: Sean Mattson/NATURE+

The seed-seeking effort, facilitated by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, culminated in a community seed bank that now supports other seedbanks in Vihiga County. Four more are planned for 2024. The banks respond to a growing movement in Western Kenya to improve seed access and incentivize nature-positive farming. These seed banks are now the go-to source for farmers seeking dozens of local crop varieties. They are also a key resource for NATURE+’s collaborative farms in Western Kenya: material from the community seedbanks are used to grow crops and increase local farmers’ seed availability.

“In the long run, this is about food security,” said Dan Nyarwath, the chairman of the NATURE+ aggregated farm in Jimo East, Kisumu County, at his community’s seed bank. “No fields will be left fallow because the farmers don’t have access to seeds.”

Linking supply and demand needs work

The seed banks grow by lending seeds to local producers (usually one or two kilograms) who promise to return double the quantity after a successful harvest. But growth in seed supply so far is slow, in part, because farmers don’t have the conditions – be it fertile soil, the know-how that was lost alongside the local seeds, or a reliable way to get fresh vegetables to (relatively) nearby consumers.

“Market linkages have been a problem,” said Andrea Ghione, an Alliance and NATURE+ researcher specializing in value chains, who recently visited Vigulu. Ghione and Initiative colleagues are exploring ways to link farmers to markets with growing demand for healthy, locally produced vegetables.

NATURE+ researchers at Vigulu, Kenya (L-R): Andrea Ghione, Guillermo Peña Chipatecua, Francesca Grazioli, Jai Rana and Lillian Aluso. Credit: Sean Mattson/NATURE+

Bringing fresh vegetables to markets in Kisumu City, merely 45 kilometers away, is hobbled by unreliable public transportation, farmers say. Nairobi, 350 kilometers away, might as well be in another time zone. Farmers interviewed for this story said they would prefer to avoid intermediaries and instead have their own system for refrigerated produce transportation.

School and hospital meal programs are government-controlled, and adding local produce to the standard fare of rice, beans, maize and cabbage served in nearby institutions would require new policies.

NATURE+ is working with communities to solve market-access issues and other impediments to sustainably transitioning farming with nature-based solutions.

Increasing the production of African leafy vegetables in Vigulu should be straightforward. The plants are generally easy to grow and many farmers are already increasing production, albeit at garden-sized scale. Training on increasing plot-level production is part of the community farm effort.

“We’re researching other unexplored markets for traditional fare, such as restaurants catering to tourists,” said Francesca Grazioli, an Alliance researcher on value chains. For example, Lake Victoria, a popular nearby getaway (and Africa’s largest lake), has many waterside restaurants that could improve their menus for visitors with local foods, and, in doing so, contribute to increased recognition, identities of, and demand for locally sourced cuisine, Grazioli added.

Farmers and researchers visit the demonstration farm in Vigulu, Kenya.

Increasing soil fertility will take time. But several farmers say they are increasing yields by applying a mixture of crop residue and livestock manure, a practice aligned with the circular economy research area of NATURE+. Scaling up the use of organic material for soil health improvement is a key component of the Initiative’s farm activities.

“Prolonged use of chemicals and fertilizers by farmers of Vihiga and Kisumu exacerbated the loss of soil fertility and crop productivity,” says Manoj Kaushal, an Alliance soils expert working with NATURE+. “Recent extreme climate scenarios worsened the situation because heavy rains washed away topsoil containing essential nutrients responsible for crop growth (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus).”

Farmers and researchers gather at the demonstration farm in Vigulu, Kenya. Photo: Sean Mattson/NATURE+

The NATURE+ team is working on rejuvenating community farm soils and building local soil biodiversity with indigenous crops and trees, and recycling organic farm waste to enhance soil nutrient availability.

One crucial aspect of their soil restoration and erosion prevention efforts is establishing native tree species. These trees play a vital role in adding nitrogen to the soil, restoring soil carbon, and promoting the growth of soil microflora. Moreover, native species attract pollinators essential for restoring biodiversity in the surrounding ecosystem.

To ensure that the right species are grown in the landscape, the community uses the Diversity for Restoration (D4R) tool to select the right species, considering the farmers’ needs, the sloping landscape, and the small farm sizes. And using the My Farm Trees app, farmers can access extension services through peer-to-peer exchanges and expert advice.

A place to learn for farmers – and researchers

NATURE+’s work in Kenya is about gaining knowledge – and sharing it where it is wanted and needed.

“I joined NATURE+ to gain skills like learning how to make compost with manure and prepare land,” said Jackline Imali, 29, one of the youngest participating farmers. She said working with her neighbors was critical to the learning curve.

The Initiative is particularly focused on understanding community dynamics – including power structures related to gender – to ensure the long-term success of nature-positive agricultural activities. Careful research will also support policy recommendations for decision-makers who want to support nature-positive communities.

A view of the boulders surrounding the village of Vigulu, Kenya. Photo: Sean Mattson/NATURE+

To better understand these dynamics, local norms, and other institutional issues, NATURE+ uses experimental learning through games.

“This type of intervention offers a safe and engaging way to facilitate dialogue and learn about key conditions needed to improve collective outcomes and what nature-positive farming means to individuals in a community,” says Kristin Davis, a NATURE+ researcher based at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Ultimately, farmers are taking action for them and for the future.

“We realize that adopting nature-positive practices will conserve land for us and for future generations,” said Elizabeth Omusiele, 45, who recalls how her parents farmed without using any chemicals. “This is all about sustainable farming.”

Share this to :