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Conservation agriculture, intercropping breathes new life to Western soils

A combination of farming practices in areas where tired soils have depressed yields is reversing the sorry state of affairs with intercropping, conservation agriculture among others now more than doubling yields.

In Siaya and Bungoma counties, farmers have been waking up to barren lands with virtually all forms of conventional fertilizers having failed to reverse the soil infertility.

But a project dubbed Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa (SIMLESA) breathed new life to the tired soils and at low or no cost.    

Under the project farmers switched to conservation agriculture, a practice where farmers are advised not to till land in order not to disrupt the nutrients on the top layer of the soil. The only thing they do is weeding. This, with intercropping and using herbicides to control weeds were enough to turn around the dwindling farmer fortunes.

Ferdinand Makhanu, one of the farmers in Bumula region, said that information from SIMLESA’s innovation platforms has helped him improve his seed and farming technologies. “I initially harvested 10 bags of maize, which increased to 15,” he said. “I attribute this yield increase to the new low cost agricultural practices that I have embraced.” Makhanu’s farm is only about half a hectare, so the yield increase he describes, 450 kilograms was significant to him. He is now able to diversify his farming, get better yields and produce surplus for sale which allows him to take care of his family financially.

About 200 kilometers away, in Siaya County, Julius Ong’ayi from the Ng’ombe Sifa Self Help Group shares the same sentiments. “I learned about conservation agriculture, which has improved my soil’s fertility,” he said. Ong’ayi said the greatest challenge faced by area farmers is adapting to new farming methods. “Many farmers stubbornly stick to traditional seeds, when innovation platforms provide modern solutions that improve yield,” he said.

It is a leap of faith that is now changing the fortunes of hundreds of farmers in Western Kenya who are recording a near tripling of yields.

An Operational Field Guide for Developing and Managing Local Agricultural Innovation Platforms, produced by KARI with funding from AusAID through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which also funds SIMLESA, defines an innovation platform as a forum to foster interaction among a group of relevant stakeholders around a shared interest.

Innovation platforms offer opportunities or practical solutions at the local level, linking farmers to markets and other stakeholders, and provide evidence for realistic policies and policy areas at the regional and national levels, according to Mulugetta Mekuria, CIMMYT socioeconomist and SIMLESA coordinator.

Mekuria urged farmers to try new maize varieties, including drought-tolerant ones developed in collaboration with CIMMYT and released by KARI. “We know farmers want to use the varieties they know and have used for many years,” Mekuria said. “However, we have farm-level evidence that the new varieties grown under conservation agriculture-based sustainable intensification practices contribute to increased yield, reduce production costs and improve soil fertility over time.”

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