Farmers reap fortunes turning rock to arable land

The scramble for agricultural land by real estate coupled with discovery of minerals are taking a toll on Kenya’s arable land even as population soars, but a group of vanguard farmers are now rehabilitating dry and rocky patches of land for arable farming and earning handsomely from it.

Kenya’s arid and semi arid land covers about 80 percent of the country.  But as farmers learn of new farming techniques that require them to clear more land than they traditionally had, they are reclaiming this land for agricultural production, as demonstrated by small holder farmers across the nation.

According to a recent research by Africa farmtech a continental agricultural think tank land scarcity has potential to create civil wars in Africa as population keeps rising with farmers now not able to sustain food for local consumption. The lucrative export market that pays farmers a lot as an incentive for them to export more means that farmers will keep abandoning the local market.

But this doesn’t have to be according to the report. Although arable land in the country and continent is scarce, Africa is still blessed with large swathes of land that is rocky or bushy and this is where farmers need to tap in. With the right resources, like enough water, high yielding drought resistance crops and improved farm management Africa can turn its bushy and rocky land into food producing farmers. And farmers in Kenya are now reaping handsomely for clearing rocky land.

A tedious and somehow painful procedure, farmers have to work with mattock, pick axe and other tools to make the poor land suitable for crop production. When Thomas Ngwiri was cheated out of money in a land buying deal that went sour 22 years ago, he had to make do with a three acre piece of dry, rocky piece of land that could hardly yield anything.

“My wife wept and literally collapsed after seeing the land I had bought. She wondered how we would grow enough food to sustain our family on that land,” recalls Mr. Ngwiri, a retired Public service driver and a farmer in Naiborom village, Laikipia District. Today, however, that same land produces enough to cater for the family’s food with the surplus getting supplied in various markets in the area and beyond, a venture that has made him an envy of many.

The farm has a variety of fruits including pineapples, pawpaws, avocado, citrus fruits, passion fruits and mangoes.
The farmer also keeps chickens, ducks, cows, and a few dairy goats. “I have used at least Sh50, 000 to convert my formerly rocky land in to what it is today.  With all the crops and livestock on the farm, I have long recouped my investment,” adds Mr. Ngwiri recalling the work that attracted the admiration of his neighbours.

Speaking on an interview on his Ngomongo Farm, the farmer said he sells pineapples worth Sh200,000 weekly. The pineapples are grown on the broken rocks and weeding is not only cumbersome, but also strenuous. In line with the trend in other drier parts of the country, Mr. Ngwiri grows dry land crops such as cassava and pigeon peas two hardy crops suited to the dry season.

“Cassava tubers sometimes have to be harvested with mattocks as the ground is too hard for hoes and other equipment,” Mr. George Kamau an agricultural extension officer says. The difficulty notwithstanding, the harvest is huge and profitable. Large tubers, some weighing over six kilogrammes provide food security on the farm. The surplus is sold at his gate to retailers who take it to neighbouring markets.

With soil being a scarce commodity in the rehabilitated land, its continued formation is vital. The addition of manure from cattle, donkeys, goats and chicken is vital and continuous. A tree belt has been established on the farm to act as a windbreaker and provide dead leaves for manure. Trees grown on the farm include gravellier, eucalyptus and croton.

Wind breakers reduce sheet erosion brought about by the windy spells, especially during the dry months of January to March. Mr. Ngwiri is also a member of Ng’arua Focal Group of Arid Lands Information Network. Member s meets regularly to share their farming experiences and challenges. They are also able to access vital information through the internet on improving land productivity, agricultural marketing and other information.

But it is not just Mr. Ngwiri who has taken up land reclamation. Having completely used his farm for crop production, Mr. Joseph Kamenju approached an absentee landlord in his neighbourhood for his rocky three acre piece of land.
“He gave me the land to make the best out of. He cared less what I did with the land he had given up on as worthless,” Mr. Kamenju a father of four recalled.

Three years on, he is about to recoup the Sh300, 000 he used in its rehabilitation. “The owner is proud of my achievement and is willing to sell me the land. He has occasionally brought his relatives to witness the transformation their rocky land has undergone,” Mr Kamenju says.

But it hasn’t been easy. “We had to manually break and remove the stones as no tractor could work on the rocky land. We used the wheel barrows to take the rocks away.” Sometimes farm hands had to be hired to break the stones and carry them away.
The stones surrounding the rocky lands are also being used by the vanguard farmers in smart ways.

Mr. Kamenju has used the rocks to construct two reinforced water tanks. Stones heaped in a line along tree belts are also being used as an apiary to host beehives. Returns from the reclaimed land have been encouraging to other farmers.

Two years ago Mr. Kamenju harvested 60 bags of maize and five bags of beans from the three acre piece of land. At Sh2, 000 per 90 kilo bag of maize and Sh4, 000 for beans, he raked in Sh140, 000. With the cost of growing the crop estimated at Sh50, 000, a profit of Sh90, 000 was realized.

And even with the undesirable weather and the rising cost of fertilizer in 2008, Mr. Kamenju was able to harvest 40 bags of maize.
Inspired by Israel’s famed land reclamation example, Mr. Kamenju believes that nations with poor soils, but with water sources can rehabilitate land and be able to feed their people.