The terracing secret that has showered Machakos farms

William Ndolo is a family man with two wives, ten children and six grandchildren. Yet with just an acre of land in the climatically harsh Machakos county, he is able to comfortably feed his extended family and produce surplus for sale which then educate the children.

This, a sharp contrast to tens of farms that lay bare facing the scorching sun. Simple farming techniques like terracing and crop rotation has remained his well guarded secret. In Machakos, the topsoil is parched and dry and there is a spartan, denudated quality to Ndolo’s farm that, as old-timers will tell you, contrasts with the more variegated and robust land of this region’s past, when you could spot animals roaming the fields. But a clear look tells a different story.

Digging under the topsoil it is clear that the land is healthier than it first appears -- richer and darker than the parched top. Ndolo’s fields are terraced, the folds of land shaping downward, allowing rain runoff to serve as irrigation for the crops. Moreover, the fields of pigeon peas and sweet potatoes are evenly spaced with trees of mango and papaya every 20 feet or so. The trees grow quickly and some bear fruit in the first year, giving the family needed food; moreover, the interplay of trees and different crops enriches the soil.

Not all is normal, of course. “The only challenge now are the rains,” Ndolo, 54, said as he pointed upward to the clear blue sky on a warm November afternoon. “We are look up for the rains. Before, the rains were a bit better.”

And when they are better, as they were some years ago, “this land would be green,” said Japheth Muli, a Catholic Relief Services agricultural specialist. He pointed out that it is difficult to grow maize amid the drought that worsened in 2011 and is still afflicting the Horn of Africa -- a drought that is straining the food systems of Kenya and Ethiopia and has led to famine in politically unstable Somalia.

Yet the ability of Ndolo to feed his large family -- he is the father of 10 children from two wives and also has six grandchildren -- and still have enough to sell produce in local markets is an example of the benefits of changes in small-farming practices. Terracing, crop diversification with heartier, more drought-resistant strains like pigeon peas, and improving irrigation systems can help subsistence farmers and perhaps start mitigating against the changes of climate that are putting new pressures on rural areas in the Horn of Africa, say farm experts like Muli.

The fact that Ndolo -- who like other farmers in the area has participated in a food security program by CRS and the Catholic diocese of Machakos -- can even feed his family is no small accomplishment. Those who are still growing only maize are finding it tough-going: Drought is not kind to maize, and those not making changes in their planting are “not able to buy food in the market,” Ndolo said. “They are complaining.” Because of the drought, the price of maize doubled in the last half of 2011, though in some markets in Machakos, the price tripled or was even higher.

The changes such as terracing were not that onerous to make, Ndolo said. Yet they did go against certain notions of farming that became popular after Kenya’s 1963 independence. Terracing, once widely practiced during the era of British rule, was abandoned because it was seen as an unwanted colonial holdover. Yet terracing is an effective way of keeping water in the soil, particularly at a time when every drop of moisture counts.