Education is the key
Farmers' homes in Kambu
VeSeL researchers from the University of Nairobi traveled to Kambu on April 18-19 to meet with members of the Mtito-Andei Initiative, to discuss how VeSeL can help the local agricultural community. The researchers included Prof. Timothy Waema, Dr Kahiu Ngugi and Sylvia Henga. Eight members of MDI attended, including the chair Christine Kiili.
The area around Kambu faces severe challenges, including drought and environmental degradation. Drastic climate changes have included the delayed onset of rainfall, unpredictable weather patterns, and poor rainfall distribution.
Low levels of literacy have exacerbated environmental degradation through destructive practices such as charcoal burning, sand harvesting, overstocking and overgrazing. High population growth has meant cutting down trees for settlement and charcoal burning. Thus this creates a destructive cycle as the land loses water and wild animals, and the soil further erodes.
MDI has several aims. One is to improve local animal breeds through selection - for example it has introduced the Doper sheep. It has formed and maintains a seed bank, and promotes seed production in the community, including green peas and mbaazi, and also obtains seed from external sources, such as sorghum, cow peas and legumes. MDI also acts as a link to external institutions like the Ministry of Agriculture.
One area VeSeL may be able to help with is the farmers' access to information. They need to know which crops to grow, which methods to use, water usage techniques, how to detect and prevent plant and animal diseases, market information, seed varieties, and government policies.
Seeds of hope
Jatropha provides a good example. It is already grown by a few farmers in the area. It has the advantages of environmental restoration, bio-fuel production and can be inter-cropped with other crops. A tissue culture could be nurthered, to increase seed propagation and produce clean disease free seeds.
However, there is currently no clear market or production information available to the farmers. Farmers are reluctant to switch to Jatropha and other potentially productive crops like Amaranthus, due to lack of knowledge. Jatropha is costly to produce, so would entail a large commitment. Furthermore, farmers do not have ready access to Jatropha seeds.
Getting the word out
Currently MDI communicates with local farmers via physical visits to groups and farmers (who also visit MDI in turn); through awareness barazas (public meetings) and mobile phone communication (though this is limited). In the future, communication with stakeholders and access to information will have to include widespread mobile telephony. The Mangelete community radio station could be used, but this is costly for MDI to use for their advertisements). Email and the Internet could play a part, but a lot of capacity building will need to be developed at MDI.
A resource centre could be be established to enhance communication, education and information dissemination. In the meeting it was agreed that the centre could start in MDI's current office, with some organization.
VeSeL researchers and students will work with MDI and the farmers. MDI will formulate a strategic plan and defined work plan.
As a start, VeSeL has already set up a web site for MDI. This is used to advertise the group, mobilize resources, and link with other development partners. However, as there is not yet any Internet connection in Kambu, so the group has to send someone to Nairobi for communication. Some training will have to take place, and for this it should be possible to use college students from the area through an attachment programme.
Tackling the big issues
Dry stream bed in Kambu
Over the longer term, environmental degradation can be addressed through capacity building (training and education), research and development, and providing knowledge about alternative sources of income as well as energy such as solar and wind power.
Farming methods can be improved through access to, modification of, and deployment of tested and tried technologies; education and training; and research and development related to diseases, insects, and disease resistance. Key to this is access to information on markets and market systems - cost-benefit aspects, when to grow what and how, sources of markets, and external avenues like exports.
There is need for demonstration centers as sources of information - such as farms or schools; a child-to-child approach could be useful in dissemination through songs for example. And a resource centre could help with development of business plans for farmers, links to micro-enterprise organizations such as the Kenya Women Finance Trust, and information generally.
Education is thus a key - to access the needed changes in crop type and technology, for example. It is also needed to help farmers rehabilitate or restore lost valuables; this involves how to use local resources that are wasted - for example maximizing the use of rainfall to avoid erosion and drought.
Education can also change attitudes. For instance, farmers continue to grow maize, which is not highly productive in the area. Alternatives include cowpeas and green grams, but practical demonstrations would be most effective. Finally, education can encourage farming as a business rather than as mere subsistence.
Speaking of education, part of VeSeL's remit is to work with schools. Primary schools in particular are lacking in technology (and often even electrical power). They tend to have more students from the local community, and parents are more at ease visiting primary schools than secondary schools.
Silanga primary school, about 4km from Kambu, was chosen unanimously at the meeting. The school will form a good meeting point and seminar ground for the community, and enhance the relationship between community members.