News and knowhow for farmers

Liming improves yields of depleted Western Kenya soils

The chron­ic­ally acidic soils of West­ern Kenya has meant end­less woes to the farm­ers in the area, but a new method of ap­ply­ing lime to the tired soils is chan­ging for­tunes and re­kind­ling hope to thou­sands of farm­ers who had aban­doned farm­ing. In 2008, Isaac Ochi­eng Ok­wangi from Nyangera, Siaya Dis­trict har­ves­ted just two 90kg bags of maize from his one and a half acre maize plot. On the same piece of land today, 29-year-old Ochi­eng gets around 16 bags a sea­son, in two sea­sons a year. His yields from other crops like beans have also risen.

Ochi­eng at­trib­utes the eight-fold rise to ap­ply­ing lime on his farm, which lowers soil acid­ity to levels that sus­tain sub­sist­ence crops, ac­cord­ing to David Mbakaya a soil sci­ent­ist with the Kenya Ag­ri­cul­tural Re­search In­sti­tute (KARI) in Kaka­mega.
Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by AGRA-Al­li­ance, Kenya has over half a mil­lion hec­tares of acidic soils in its maize grow­ing areas. In West­ern Kenya, around 57,670 hec­tares of soil are acidic. The use of ni­tro­gen­ous fer­til­izers like DAP and high rain­falls that pen­et­rate deep into the ground have ex­acer­bated the prob­lems of soil acid­ity.
Year in, year out sub­sist­ence farm­ing without ro­tat­ing crops has also in­creased soil acid­ity, giv­ing the land “no rest.” As a res­ult, maize yields in West­ern Kenya are on av­er­age es­tim­ated at less than 1 tonnes per hec­tare, yet neigh­bor­ing re­gions get 5 to 6 tonnes a hec­tare.
In 2009, act­ing on ad­vice from KARI Kaka­mega, Ochi­eng ap­plied on his one and a half acres 10 bags of ag­ri­cul­tural lime. He was one of 50 farm­ers who got the lime for free when Al­li­ance for Green Re­volu­tion (AGRA) sponsored KARI led tri­als that provided the lime, cost­ing Sh270 a bag of 50kgs from the Homalime Fact­ory in Koru, Kisume.   
After Ochi­eng spread it on his maize plot, he cul­tiv­ated it into the soil, planted his maize and waited for the res­ults. “The maize was vi­brant and one maize plant would have two or more cobs,” he said.  
Al­though he by­passed the Sh2700 cost of adding the lime, the re­turns would have made the in­vest­ment worth­while even if he had paid. In both 2010 maize sea­sons he har­ves­ted 16 bags each sea­son, fetch­ing a mar­ket price of Sh5000 a bag. He also sold 4 sacks of beans each earn­ing Sh8000.
The Sh2700 in the right input had shif­ted his an­nual earn­ings from what would have been Sh20,000 to Sh112,000. Ochi­eng even sold some of his maize to other farm­ers who had poor har­vests after de­clin­ing to apply lime on their land. With the pro­ceeds he was able to build a new house for his fam­ily of two chil­dren.
His turn­around has since con­vinced other local farm­ers to dig lime in. “We had no hun­ger,” said 33-year-old Evelyn Achi­eng Ochi­eng, an­other of the 50 mem­bers who ap­plied lime in 2009. Be­fore, she used to get 3 or at most 4 bags of maize from her half an acre plot. Now she gets 10. The change saw Achi­eng also try it on her cas­sava plant­a­tion, where the cas­sava be­came vi­brant and leaves wouldn’t sag. “It’s like they got rid of some cas­sava dis­ease,” she said.
A near sim­ilar ob­ser­va­tion was made by Stan­ley Chiv­eti, a nurs­ery tree farmer who says ap­ply­ing lime ma­tures his tree seed­lings faster. Ini­tially, they would reach cer­tain heights at 6 months. Now they get there in 4 months and without nurs­ery tree pests.
Ac­cord­ing to Mbakaya, soils they have sampled in West­ern Kenya have PH levels of 4.3 to 5.5. Yet sub­sist­ence staple crops thrive at a PH of 5.5 to 6. KARI su­per­vises farm­ers ap­ply­ing lime to en­sure they don’t put in too much and make the soil to al­kaline. Al­kaline soils only work well for tea farm­ing.
After one full ap­plic­a­tion of lime, KARI ad­vises farm­ers to re­apply the lime again after 3 years. “Over ap­ply­ing lime leads to tox­icity,” said Mbakaya.
When ap­ply­ing lime on soil, he also ad­vises farm­ers to have gloves and face masks as it ir­rit­ates the skins and chokes. In the soil, lime re­plen­ishes Mag­nesium and Cal­cium min­er­als.
Lime is also being added to fish ponds by fish farm­ers like Fran­cis Sak­ula from Is­anjiro Vil­lage in North­ern Kaka­mega. In his 50ft by 50ft pond with over 1000 tilapia he ap­plies the lime to stop the green algae (spiro­gyra) from form­ing and float­ing on his fish pond deny­ing his fish oxy­gen. It also kills frog tad poles ,which prey on fish fin­ger­lings and en­cour­ages growth of the water plants that fish feed on.  
In ad­di­tion, frogs don’t lay eggs in limed water and snakes don’t in­vade a pond with lime. Its brown­ish color when ap­plied to the ponds also ob­structs the view of birds that prey on fish. Sak­ula ap­plies around 5kg to 10kg of lime from the pond’s inlet.
Farm­ers like Ochi­eng and Achi­eng who got the lime for free will now have to buy and re­apply it after 3 years. In West­ern Kenya there are 5 Agro-Deal­ers stock­ing the ag­ri­cul­tural lime, but AGRA is cur­rently pay­ing for trans­port in an ef­fort to keep the lime af­ford­able.
The re­search into the im­pact of ap­ply­ing lime was done by KARI Kaka­mega and Moi Uni­versity El­doret after they got a grant from AGRA’s Soil Health Pro­gramme.
For Isaac Ochi­eng, the study has trans­formed his life. In early 2008, he left Nairobi’s Math­are area with just Sh7000, hav­ing lost all his pos­ses­sions to arson in the post elec­tion vi­ol­ence. Today, he has no re­grets as he gazes at his lush vibrant maize crops and the vegetables he is growing, and has emerged as an outspoken advocate for the benefits of lime for the farmers in his region.

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