Reviving Traditional Knowledge

Sustainable use of resources in small-scale agriculture in Kenya

A story from the project...

Project

Biovision is working with small-scale farmers and their families in the Tana and Kathita River Basins to improve living conditions whilst maintaining their traditional culture and the natural environment. In particular, the project is focussing on ecological farming and the preservation and propagation of indigenous crops. The traditional varieties of millet, beans, sweet potatoes and maize are often better suited to local conditions than modern high-yielding hybrid varieties. They are also better at withstanding the effects of climate change.

Farmers learn how to minimise storage losses and how to propagate and plant seeds and seedlings, making them more self-reliant. In addition, demand for traditional varieties at local markets is increasing and this provides smallholders with an opportunity to earn a useful income.

By providing targeted training in topics such as soil improvement, afforestation, erosion control and the use of water resources in agriculture, the farms participating in the project are better able to withstand the negative impacts of climate change.

Ikwa, a waterfall on the River Kathita in Tharaka is an ancient resting place. Tradition prohibits the use of such holy sites but pressure on these protected areas is growing. Biovision is actively encouraging the retention of the local culture and with it the environment (Tharaka, Kenya, 2014).

Relevance

The local weather is unpredictable and marked by periods of drought followed by floods. This, combined with the ongoing rise in the population, is making farming and general living conditions in the Tana and Kathita River Basins more difficult. The semi-arid climate and frequent droughts result in crop failures and some 50% of the population live below the poverty line. At the same time, there is growing pressure on natural resources from soil erosion and deforestation. In particular, the overuse of local forests has brought about significant changes in the ecosystem. The absence of forests means that the trees are not there to store water or protect against erosion.  

Beneficiaries

The project directly benefits 2000 people; this consists of 1600 small-scale farmers, including young people and those with a disability, and 400 schoolchildren and students. Of this total, 1220 are women, i.e. 61% Two-thirds of the beneficiaries are new whereas one-third were involved in earlier phases of the project.

In addition, a further 4,000 people benefit indirectly from the informal dissemination of knowledge and the adoption of the practical solutions promoted by the project. The restoration of the ecosystem is benefiting all those living alongside the rivers as well as those living further downstream.

Objectives of current project phase

  • Train participants in sustainable methods of agriculture that increase the tolerance of communities to droughts, e.g. composting and soil improvements using techniques such as mulching and catch-crop cultivation. Other measures include the planting of grass strips to prevent erosion and the efficient use of water.
  • Generate additional sources of income from fruit and vegetable growing, animal husbandry and dairy farming.
  • Restore two areas of the river bank (5,000 hectares) by maintaining and protecting the riverscape and reforestation.
  • Produce 60,000 local tree seedlings to plant along the river banks
  • Improve access to local markets and provide training in the marketing of local products. 
  • 500 energy-efficient “jikos” (stoves) to replace the traditional hearths; the new stoves use 80% less wood and so reduce the burden on ecosystems

Achievements

At the start of the project in 2011, a collaborative eco-mapping process was conducted with 8 communities in Tharaka. Knowledge was gathered from older members of the community and this was then used to produce a historical map of the River Kathita. The map provided a visualisation of existing local knowledge of cultural assets and the traditional practices for managing resources. The map demonstrated the environmental changes over the years from logging and the conversion of forests to farmland and it was then possible to set priorities. As a result, local people have already planted more than 36,000 indigenous trees along the banks of the River Kathita.

The project also carried out workshops on “Indigenous seeds” at which knowledge on local plant species was exchanged. Seeds from old varieties were collected and the participants were trained in how to cultivate, distribute and market them. This involved some 560 farmers who were taught both traditional and modern methods of sustainable farming, which allowed them to adopt a mixed-cropping system. The farmers also attended courses on composting, soil improvement, prevention of erosion and the sustainable use of water for agriculture. A total of 467 farmers now practice agroforestry, i.e. the mixed use of land to produce fruit, cereals and animal feed.

Sustainability

Those who participated in earlier phases of the project in Meru and Tharaka-Nithi districts will be self-supporting by the end of 2017. It will take a good three years before the new participants in the project from the four districts (see map Muranga, Embu, Meru and Tharaka-Nithi) are self-supporting.