Demonstration plots raise farmers’ grain yields

Over 15,000 smallholder farmers in Western Kenya are recording a more than doubling of grain yields in a project that involves small demonstration plots and aimed at improving soil fertility in the region, rife with depleted soils and counter chronic food insecurity caused by low farm yields.

Started in 2010, the initiative which is part of Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) also focuses on improving market access for grain yields of the smallholder farmers. Currently 9000 of such farmers targeted are actively participating as per Michael Odongo the Executive Director of Rural Energy and Food Security Organization (REFSO), one of the implementing agency. The other 2 are Appropriate Rural Development Agricultural Program (ARDAP) and Unguja Community Resource Centre (UCRC).

There are 18 demonstration plots equally spread in 3 regions of Busia, Teso and Siaya worst hit by soil infertility and low food production. According to Dr Bashir Jama the Director of Soil Health at Alliance for Green Revolution Africa (AGRA), the regions high agricultural potential is held back by geologically old soils low in nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium on which staples like maize thrive. The problem is exacerbated by the high population density, doing ceaseless land cultivation which gives land no rest to replenish used up nutrients.

Each demonstration plot is reaching an umbrella group of 500 farmers. On these plots are sub plots measuring 10m by 10m and incorporate different soil fertility treatments like use of organic manure, inorganic fertilizers, intercropping with legumes to fix nitrogen into soil and inoculating the legumes to produce rhizobia with nodules that produce the nitrogen. The demonstration plots are located within the farmers’ group area to ensure they don’t have to incur costs to travel far to learn.

At the plots farmers “look at each sub plot treatment performance from planting to harvest and select ones they can afford or like to apply on their farms,” said Odongo. The 3 implementing agencies each provide 2 extension officers to be giving technical advice to farmer groups learning. Extension officers also select master farmers from the farmer groups and train them. These master farmers are selected on basis of commitment to the initiative and education level. “Like a high school graduate or leaver to capture the training better,” said Odongo.

The master farmers then train in local dialects more farmers within their community. Those selected as master farmers, are required to be settled in the village.  That reduces likelihood of training someone who may move elsewhere soon. According to Odongo married women in the community are best target to train as master farmers. “They are rooted there,” he said.

To ensure farmers are receptive to farming practices on demonstration plots their results are compared to those of plots where conventional farming practices is applied. The traditional farming practices according to Odongo have lower yields. That makes it easier to convince farmers to adopt the new practices incorporating ISFM, REFSO advocates for.

The umbrella group hosting demonstration plots has smaller farmer clusters. REFSO works with the main group, to reach more farmers faster as opposed to reaching out to the small farmers ‘clusters. “Umbrella groups are our entry point,” said Odongo. The groups based on access convenience, selects farmers to host the demonstration plots. Farmers in the initiative grow staple cereals like maize, sorghum and beans but REFSO is encouraging diversification to high value legumes like soya beans, ground nuts and cowpeas.  The legumes also have high nutritional value being rich in proteins.  

Harvesting from demonstration plots is done in a participatory manner by group members. “To enable the group learn the yield variations from different treatments,” said Odongo. Then REFSO takes the initial and successive soil samples after harvest to analyze nutrient build up fixed by legumes. The yields go to the host farmer who can sell or consume. The market price for a kilogram of Soya is selling for at least Sh55 while cowpeas for Sh100 or over a dollar.

Joseph Ambiya from Emalomba Village, Nambale District hails the impact demonstration plots on his farming. Through them he has learned crop rotation, intercropping, right spacing of crops when planting and fertilizers amounts to apply and which ones. “Before I did all that without planning,” he said. Of particular interest is how using dry maize stalks as compost is reducing his DAP top dressing fertilizer application per acre by half where he applies a 50kg bag.

The stalk and homemade compost from his assessment has made the soil compact and have more organic matter. “I used to burn maize stalks before now I don’t,” said Ambiya appreciating their value. And the results are evident, per acre before attending the demonstration plots trainings for a year, the most harvest he got per acre was 5, 90kg bags of maize, today he gets at least 10 bags on the same plot.

On 1 acre he harvested a bag or less of beans, now he gets two and half bags.  To Ambiya the trainings on demonstration plots are “like a dream come true and I been able to expand and diversify my farming,” he said. Peris Wanjiku another beneficiary of the trainings agrees smiling, while disclosing she has 120 bags of maize stored.  On 1 acre she harvested 15 bags she now gets over 25 bags a testament to the success of demonstration plots trainings.

She also learned to make compost manure and rotate crops. She also taps a yellow flowered shrub after learning it’s a good substitute for CAN fertilizer. She sells her Soya at Sh55 per kilogram at Busia market, but is waiting eagerly for ARDAP, to open a processing factory where she expects to sell her Soya at a higher price.

Through AGRA funding the 3 agencies are able to get inputs, conduct field trials and farmer trainings and cover some administrative costs.  Other stakeholders in the project are the Ministry of Agriculture, Farm Concern, Western Region Christian Community Services, Mabawa, and One World Foundation.