Smallholder farmers are leading scientists in documenting some of the local interventions they are applying in combating changes in weather which have insulated them even as crop production falls.
Research scientist Sarah Ogalleh Ayeri has been canvasing the villages of Laikipia County documenting methods used by peasant farmers as they attempt to adapt to changing climatic conditions. “Farmers in this area can hardly grow any crop because of the prevailing drought. Instead, they keep livestock that include local cattle breeds, camels, goats and sheep,” said Celestino Achole Shikuku, a farmer from Piyenti village in Rumuruti, Laikipia.
“Residents of this village have had to take their livestock animals miles away in search of water, until five years ago. Then a British farmer mobilised them to construct a huge water dam, from which all our animals drink,” said Shikuku.
The dam was constructed by a seasonal spring. However, water from the spring has to be supplemented from rainfall, which is erratic. “Such are the local adaptation measures I am out to document. They can be both indigenous or those learned from elsewhere. My recommendations will then be on how they can be improved in order to serve the local community in the best way possible,” said Ayeri.
She is a research scientist at the Centre for Training and Integrated Research for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands Development and her study is titled “Lessons from Farmers: localised adaptations in agriculture as building blocks to climate change adaptation in Laikipia district.”
She said it was important that new adaptation methods be localised, then evaluated and tested before they are released for use by local farmers. In many cases farmers were introduced to new technologies that they failed to sustain in the long run.
But on a farm in Eastern Kenya, Judith Mwikali Musau is one farmer who has successfully introduced the use of grafted plants for crop and fruit harvesting. “Since my childhood, I saw my parents grow particular types of fruits, grains and legumes to improve the yields on my farm, I have integrated the indigenous knowledge with appropriate technologies like grafting and permaculture,” she said.
On Musau’s three hectare plot in the semi-arid Mwala district, she grows 500 grafted mango trees, 800 grafted orange trees, 150 tangerine trees and some pawpaw trees. All trees are intercropped with legumes like pigeon peas and cowpeas.
But not all farmers have been as successful as Musau. “It becomes very difficult for the farmers to adapt to completely new adaptation technologies. They might look lucrative at the time of introduction, but evidence has shown that most of them cannot easily be sustained locally,” said Ayeri.
She said that before introducing any climate change adaptation measures to any community of smallholder farmers, some key issues must be considered. “We must first understand the preferred local adaptation strategies. But most importantly, we must know how farmers perceive climate change, how they link their existent adaptations to the phenomenon, and how these existent adaptations can be improved to be more effective, efficient and sustainable,” explained Ayeri.
Examples of such methods include the introduction of high-yielding hybrid maize varieties, which have failed to survive without adequate farm inputs like fertilisers, and genetically improved dairy cattle that have been proven to be highly susceptible to harsh climatic conditions and diseases.
Ayeri said it is important for agriculturalists to understand what drives farmers to choose particular adaptation measures, and find out which ones may or may not work for them.
The May 2010 United Nations’ conference in Nairobi, which aimed to provide advice relating to the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, acknowledged the importance of reverting to the indigenous knowledge in African farming as an appropriate adaptation measure.
“At the moment climate change is the most important phenomenon to watch because studies have shown that it perpetuates nearly all the other challenges,” she said. Climate change is expected to affect Africa greatly and scientists say that agriculture will be most affected – impacting millions of families who depend on it for their livelihoods.
But Ayeri hopes her research findings will make a difference. The findings will be used to inform policy on climate change and decision making in agriculture within Kenya and beyond. “This will ultimately increase agricultural production of farmers and positively contribute towards sustainable development,” she said.
Ayeri’s research is part of a fellowship programme sponsored by the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development programme, hosted by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.