The prolonged drought impacting the north, which has left more than 2.5 million people on the brink of starvation and poverty, is only the latest in an increasingly short cycle that is leaving pastoralists and farmers with less and less time to recover.
And it is not only those in the arid to very arid regions who are living with the impact of more frequent water scarcity. With an estimated two million Kenyans suffering acute food insecurity before the drought, there is a clear need for effective solutions to what is a national nutritional crisis.
However, promising innovations are helping farmers in different regions and facing different conditions to reduce their reliance on unpredictable rains and are slowly but surely helping them to become more productive and resilient – despite the rising challenges of climate change.
While piecemeal at present, these innovations could prove central to reducing the impact of variable rainfall and extreme weather with more investment and support from the government, particularly as the Kenya Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) Strategic Plan expires later this year.
These innovations go some way towards helping Kenya’s farmers to sustainably intensify their agricultural production, reducing their impact upon the environment and its natural resources.
And, through these projects, it will also be possible to build up the resilience of the national food system to withstand the shock of an extended or unexpected drought, boosting the food, nutrition and economic security of the country. So, what are the innovations that can help to achieve this?
Firstly, with rainfall becoming increasingly unpredictable, the management and use of precious water resources is acutely important.
To respond to these challenges, farmers in three drought-prone counties, Kitui, Machakos and Makueni, have begun using farm ponds to harvest and store water, which can then be used to irrigate high value crops and provide drinking water for livestock.
By excavating ponds underground to collect excess water from rainfall, farmers can ensure that they are sustainably making the most of available natural resources, whilst continuing to produce more and more nutritious food.
With more than 10,000 of these farm ponds excavated, helping some 100,000 people in the region, projects in the three drought-prone counties are also showing that a positive return on investment could be achieved within 2.5 years.
Secondly, farmers in the outskirts of Kajiado have begun using solar power irrigation systems (SPIS) as a key tool to enhance their agricultural intensification, particularly to feed the growing population of Nairobi.
Energy was the missing link to upscale irrigation in Kajiado North, as farmlands tended to be far from the energy grid, but since 2000, various companies have started marketing solar water pumps in Kajiado, which provide a clean source of energy for irrigation, as opposed to polluting diesel or petrol generators.
Those solar powered systems are now common throughout Kajiado, but tax exemptions on local parts, as well as more innovative financing, would help to increase their uptake, helping farmers to produce higher quantities of food through more sustainable methods with a reduced environmental impact.
Finally, innovative blended finance models from Nairobi City have helped to support agricultural intensification and watershed management in the Upper Tana Catchments.
Launched in 2012, the Upper Tana “Water Fund” has mobilized funds from public and private sector institutions to support conservation activities in the catchment areas of the Upper Tana, helping to reverse erosion and soil degradation and helping farmers in the region to continue growing food.
Strong leadership by a respected entity, such as TNC, would also help to build up the water fund and increase its positive impact for farmers, and whole communities, in the region.
It’s clear that many of the tools for a successful “Operation Mwolyo Out” across the country exist in Kenya already; the challenge is now expanding these homegrown solutions to the areas that need them most, including the arid and semi-arid regions of the north.
But if Kenya is to contend with future droughts without the eventuality of millions more succumbing to hunger, we must channel investment and partnerships into sustainable agriculture intensification, ensuring we can feed more, and feed more sustainably.
– Sara Mbago-Bhunu is the former commissioner for the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI)