Will agroforestry solve food crises?

Monday October 23 2023

A farmer practicing agroforestry in her farm. PHOTO | SYDNEY KITHOME | NMG


Rain-fed agriculture is increasingly becoming a difficult grind for thousands of small-scale farmers across the region as climate change renders weather patterns unpredictable and alternative water sources slowly dry up.

In Mia Moja, a small village in Meru County, just a few kilometres from Mt Kenya – a prominent water-catchment area in itself – farmers are embracing new ways of farming after decades of underwhelming harvests due to droughts and water scarcity, thanks to climate change.

Ephantus Mwangi, who has been planting maize and beans for over a decade with little to show for it season after season, has recently abandoned the subsistence crops for avocados, which he believes will both help him and his community.

“The avocado tree is double beneficial because it cleans the air, attracting the rainfall we need, and I also sell the fruits for decent income,” Mr Mwangi told The EastAfrican at his farm last week.

Read: Forests, tree foods better option in fight against malnutrition

A few kilometres away is John Maina’s farm, whose avocados are almost ready for their first harvest. He also just recently transitioned to avocado farming after learning of their importance in solving the climate-change induced challenges bedeviling their village.


Irregular rain pattern

Mia Moja is part of Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands, which account for about 84 percent of Kenya’s land. They traditionally receive very little rainfall and lately, much less, exacerbating their water scarcity problem and threatening livelihoods of thousands in the region.

Besides rainfall, Mia Moja residents and many others in rangelands surrounding Mt Kenya rely on water from rivers and streams that spring out of the mountain, but lately, these have been dwindling, causing scarcity and unprecedented resource conflicts.

The World Meteorological Report 2021 says that due to climate change, Mt Kenya may no longer be a water catchment area by 2040 as the glaciers, which are the source of many rivers in the region, slowly melt away as the globe continues to heat up.

This is why farmers are changing their practices. At the heart of the transition is regenerative agriculture, which involves using crucial resources such as water responsibly, allowing them to redevelop to continue sustaining their farming for generations to come.

Efficient water use

Peter Njima, programme manager of Central Highlands Ecoregion Foodscape, an initiative to promote sustainable agriculture, says this type of farming basically seeks to ensure agricultural activity leaves the least impact on the environment.

Read: Rwanda Agriculture ministry urged to promote agroforestry

“Agroforestry is the practice of planting avocado trees, for example. We also encourage minimum tillage, maintaining permanent cover through planting grass or other cover plants like sweet potatoes, and using water efficiently,” explains Mr Njima.

According to Dr Michael Misiko, the Nature Conservancy’s director of agriculture in Africa, these changes are key to solving multiple problems facing not just the village, but the country at large and nearly the entire globe.

“Water is a critical element as witnessed in conflicts around the region between pastoralists and sedentary crop farmers. We must protect the rivers by ensuring the highlands where they flow from are protected, and ensure irrigation works efficiently,” Dr Misiko said.

Avocado trees work for the farmers and the planet concurrently. They protect rivers from sedimentation, increase forest cover hence sequestering emissions from agriculture, while the fruits are a profitable item in the local and international markets.

“Trees control sedimentation, but you don’t just grow a tree because you will eventually cut it. You need to ensure that the tree generates many more benefits while it is standing, than when it is cut,” explains Dr Misiko.

By practicing sustainable agriculture, Dr Misiko argues that communities not only reduce the negative impact of farming on the environment, but they can also produce more and better-quality foods to help address the growing food insecurity challenge.

Across East Africa, agriculture remains the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. In Kenya, the sector contributes to approximately 40 percent of total emissions each year, according to the Ministry of Environment’s latest Nationally Determined Contribution.

Yet, millions of people in the region and across the globe remain food insecure.

In the East African region, the number of people facing hunger has more than doubled from 26.1 million in 2016 to over 64 million in 2023, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha).

Read: EA faces more food shortage as conflicts add mouths to feed

But encouraging sustainable practices is not enough. Margaret Miano, a business development specialist at the Micro Enterprise Support Programme Trust, says linking the farmers to profitable markets is crucial to keep them on-board with the conservation efforts.

“Before engaging farmer groups, we identify the market first and then work backwards to see how farmers can be facilitated to reach and serve those markets,” Ms Miano said.

“We have seen farmers trying to shift to these sustainable practices such as avocado farming but because of lack of steady markets, many quit. That’s why we promote contract farming because it gives the farmers confidence to invest and practice farming sustainably since they have a guarantee of offtake by the buyer.”

At the markets stage, agribusinesses are also becoming increasingly sensitive to the practices employed by farmers in the production process. Many engage only farmers who have the least harm on the environment.

“We believe that what we take from the earth, we should give it back to the earth in terms of soil and water conservation,” says Dipesh Devraj, operations manager at Keitt Exporters, an agribusiness company working with the Mia Moja farmers.

“For us to be in business for the next fifty years, if we don’t look after the environment, then it also won’t look after our business. It’s a simple give and take situation.”

The idea of regenerative farming is gaining prominence beyond the Mt Kenya foodscape and the region. The United States Agency for International Development has also started its own campaigns for sustainable agriculture.

Through their Feed the Future initiative, the American agency helps farmers leverage technologies like drip irrigation and drought-resilient seeds, and also promote efficient use of fertilisers to reduce groundwater and ecosystems pollution.