New water harvesting project showers Marsabit farms

A high return project in Marsabit that stalled due to water shortages has inspired farmers in the area to embrace new ways of water harvesting in a venture that has now opened up new avenues of farming. The water harvesting project which has birthed uptake of greenhouses and other modern farming techniques is now turning the dry Marsabit area into an oasis with more people traditionally pastoralists now delving into farming.

The farmers in the famine ravaged northern district of Marsabit came together to acquire a greenhouse and start vegetable farming last September, enjoying a rapid uptake in business that proved the commercial viability of their project – but not without securing their water supplies.

The greenhouse, measuring 8 by 15 meters, cost Sh161,600 to set up, 70 per cent of which was financed by the Ministry of Arid Lands while the other 30 per cent was raised by the 24 member Sagante Community Group. “We had a lot of hope it would be the way out of poverty, but it’s unfortunate the water problem has diminished that”, said Halakhe Waqo, one of the group members.

When launched, the project was one of its kind and attracted admiration from surrounding farmers, who were ready to replicate it. The project was also lucrative by the standard of living in Marsabit, but only when water was available, said Mr Halakhe.
The group divided the green house into two, planting half with tomatoes and half withSukuma Wiki. They watered the crops through drip irrigation from a raised container stationed outside the green house.

Within the first six weeks, crops were ready for harvesting, and the small green house was producing 35kg of tomatoes and about 30kg of Sukuma Wiki every five days. The harvest could have been higher with more water, said Mr Halakhe, but they rationed the water to less than the 600litres a day required, which in turn curbed output. Even so, within weeks of erection, the imposing white coloured green house had changed the life of the villagers around as they flocked to buy the Sukuma Wiki and tomatoes.

A kilogram of the tomatoes were sold at Sh50 to Sh70, while Sukuma Wiki fetched about Sh500 in sales revenue per week, making for total income of between Sh2300 and Sh3300 a week, or up to Sh14,800 a month. However, at the time of establishing the greenhouse, the price of an 18,000litre water tanker, enough for a month’s production, was already standing at about Sh15,000. The Ministry of Lands helped by supplying some tankers of water, for which the group covered the driver’s allowance and fuel costs. But sometimes there were gaps of months in getting the tankers from the Ministry.

Eventually, the project ran out of water, with the nearest local water source some 30km away at Kubi Qallo, or at about the same distance at LogoLogo, and the group unable to afford to hire its own water tankers to fetch more water. The rapid breakdown of the new project, which the farmers had planned to replicate by adding more greenhouses to raise earnings, has focussed the group on ways of finding a sustainable water solution through a new, local borehole or concerted water harvesting.

“We want to look for a way to set up enough tanks to harvest water during rain, but still, getting tanks is expensive,” said Mr. Halakhe who is also the Civic area elected representative. But the rationale, he says, is there. Apart from the initial set-up cost and the water price, the project was cheap to run, since Marsabit is fertile and needed less fertiliser than other areas. “The agricultural officers also advised us to use cow waste that has been preserved for long instead of industrial fertilisers and that we can get locally for free”, said Mr Halakhe.

The produce was also boosting the nutrition of local people. Currently, almost all the tomatoes and Sukuma Wiki sold in Marsabit are imported from Meru about 350km away and are really in ample supply and often sold at prohibitive prices. A single tomato goes for Sh8 to Sh10 while a few leaves of Sukuma Wiki sell for Sh25. “But even that is not enough and reach here while already withered because of the distance”, said Mr. Halakhe. The road that connects Marsabit to Meru through Isiolo has no tarmac.