Irrigation scheme nourishes arid Loitoktok farms

The landscape in the shadow of Africa's largest mountain, Kilimanjaro, is stunning. The climate is ideal and the soil is rich and deep. But until recently farmers in Kenya's Loitokitok district had struggled to make even a subsistence living in this seemingly perfect setting. The problem, as in many areas in East Africa, is water.

In the 1950s a local chief called Kisioki tapped into a local spring near the district town of Rombo and built a primitive irrigation system to channel the water to nearby fields where he grew such crops as vegetables and bananas to feed his large family. But in the intervening years the main canal fell into disrepair and a growing number of farmers put a heavy strain on the water supply. Conflict over a scarce resource erupted.

In 2005 JICA began a project to rehabilitate the so-called Kisioki irrigation scheme and introduce an effective water distribution system. The lives of an estimated 450 farmers in the area are being transformed.

"Farm production will almost double," says Raphael Mutiso, the government irrigation engineer in charge of the area. "This will translate into better returns for farmers and a better standard of living for their families."

Fifty-year-old Benedict Kisiokli, the son of the chief who founded the irrigation project, was similarly enthusiastic: "The land here is fertile and with a good irrigation system, we can now comfortably take care of our families."

A neighbor, Oleipite Tumainia, said until the irrigation system was rebuilt the water supply to his 10-acre farm had been severely restricted and we "could only irrigate on certain days." Now, however, "I have never been as hopeful about the future as I am now," he said.

The farmers are now aiming for even higher goals these days than subsistence farming and simply feeding their families. In just a few short decades Kenya has become a major flower and horticulture exporter to many parts of the world including Japan and Europe and the Rombo farmers believe they can join that bonanza.

"This area can be transformed into a thriving hub for export crops," says Raphael Mutiso as farmers can now grow commercial tomatoes, onions, sunflowers, French beans and bananas all year round.

The Japanese development agency is involved in five similar irrigation projects to help small-scale farmers in central and southern Kenya, part of a multiyear commitment to improve water, irrigation and agriculture in Kenya, a potentially bountiful land which is nevertheless plagued in many areas by limited water resources.

It helped to rehabilitate and further develop 12,000 hectares of farmland in the Mwea irrigation scheme that now yields between 30,000-40,000 tons of rice per year. It also established a modest training and research facility there and food security has been enhanced, poverty reduced and the living conditions of farmers improved.

Another project, the smallholder horticulture empowerment project (SHEP), is designed to help some 25,000 farmers in districts around Kenya, teaching them not only how to grow better and more productive crops but also how better to market their produce.