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Low-cost soil fertility techniques raise yields in Western Kenya

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Among arable areas of Kenya, the Western region has long been viewed as having highly degraded soils causing low food crop production.  On average a hectare yields 0.5 tonnes of maize but can yield six tonnes if soils are well managed by replenishing them with vital nutrients. This has inspired new intervention methods that have proved successful.

The problems according to the director of Soil Health at Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Dr Bashir Jama are that soils are weathered, geologically old and low in organic matter.  Soil barrenness and low yields are compounded by the mostly subsistence farmers in Western Kenya’s inability to afford quality seed, much needed fertilizer and suspicion to anyone who advises them to adopt some new agronomic techniques that raise soil fertility for higher yields.The Western Kenya soil infertility problem is a miniature representation of the dire state of African soils. The International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development (IFDC), reports Africa loses $4 billion worth of soil nutrients yearly, and three quarters of sub Saharan Africa farmlands are so depleted to even produce a tonne of grain per hectare.

Yet for a continent whose population is rising at a rate of 2.5 percent per year, food production since the 60s has fallen by 10 percent according to the author of the New Harvest and Harvard Don Professor Calestous Juma. That has left, according to Food Agricultural Organization over 200 million Africans in a state of chronic hunger while population is expected to hit 2 billion by 2050. The key issue to first address according to Dr Bashir is how to get the continent’s depleted soils back to productivity.That’s why AGRA is working with farmers, research and learning institutions to find practical, simple agronomic techniques small holder farmers can adopt to improve soils fertility. Through Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) program, AGRA since 2008 has been working with like minded partners with the aim of regenerating 6.3 million hectares of Africa’s degraded farmlands.  The soil health drive is estimated to benefit 4 million rural households and roughly 24 million people.In Western Kenya AGRA has since 2009 been working with research and Community Based Organizations (CBO) with the aim of helping 15,000 farmers raise yields by through ISFM.  The ISFM methods incorporates fertilizer application, crop rotation, marketing, liming of soils to reduce acidity all complemented by farmers assessing quality seed during planting seasons.

For Mary Achieng Ochieng from Sega in Siaya these interventions couldn’t have come at a better time. She recalls around 2009 in her quarter acre piece of land, she harvested at most a bag of maize.  Her farm like the many in the area was a hotbed of the destructive Striga weed an evidence of soil infertility.  Soils were also too acidic to sustain growth of other food crops.But in 2009/2010 season an AGRA funded intervention from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) trained her on the importance of lime application to lower soil acidity. By lowering the soil acidity food crops would thrive and farmers could diversify to growing others.  As among the first 50 farmers who got lime to apply in her farm she had to deal with heresy from some community members who weaved comical conspiracies that liming would mess her farm, as if it wasn’t bad already.  Skeptical farmers who shunned the lime even accused the lead researcher in liming David Mbakaya of KARI of tricking them to make some money. Yet even some of those who took it never applied it but stored it in their houses still wary of applying it.For Atieno she applied the lime and in the first season she got 4, 90kg bags of maize from her quarter acre piece of land. Since she says she never bothers her husband in Nairobi with money for food she gets enough to feed her family of 6, who earlier ate a bag of maize she harvested in a month. “I only ask him for money for soap but not food,” she says smiling.  She also adds harvesting takes 3 days while initially it took her a day or less.

The liming of soils has also been complemented by planting legumes which fix nutrients like nitrogen into the soil. Soya has been vital not only at adding nutrients to the soil but suppressing Striga. At his 4 of his 9 acre farm, Joseph Ambiya of Emalomba Village, Nambale District is amazed at the success intercropping with Soya has had since he adopted it in 2009. Initially he grew only maize and beans and sugarcane as was the long held tradition in the area.The most maize he got from an acre of land was 5 bags of 90kgs per season and for beans 1.5 bags.  Only when the Appropriate Rural Development Agricultural Program (ARDAP) intervened did his farming improve.  To counter Striga which was rife in his farm and affecting yields, ARDAP field officers advised him to adopt Soya to counter the weed. As the soils were also acidic the field officers asked he not apply urea fertilizer any more. “I used to apply it as we grew sugarcanes before,” said Ambiya.He then began in the 4acres intercropping maize and soya and he has never regretted. An acre of maize intercropped with soya yields 8 to 10 bags while an acre with maize alone yields at most 7 bags. “I wasn’t food secure before, I am now,” said Ambiya. He also says the maize crop with Soya is healthier and plans to replicate the model to the remaining 5 acres.  For maize he has adopted a variety he views as more tolerant to Striga yet higher yielding, the Western seed 303.

The popular adoption of Soya for intercropping has also been spurred by the impeding construction of a factory for processing it commercially. Still farmers are selling it to other established factories through ARDAP for over half a dollar per kilogram.  Other legumes he is growing are groundnuts but Soya has taken precedence.  Emalomba was long a sugarcane belt, but from Ambiya assessment the short time he has adopted food crops more and ditched growing sugarcane, he has benefitted economically.To further improve their soils the farmers have began accessing credit facilities for buying fertilizers to ensure soils rehabilitation is all round.  Maintaining soils at fertile levels according to Mbakaya suppresses Striga and other weeds of similar destructive traits like richardia scabra.

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