A slowdown in the growth of Kenya's agricultural output in 2011, which rose 1.5 per cent compared with a rise of 6.5 per cent in 2010, has been held up as the key factor dampening overall economic growth last year - which ran at 4.4 per cent, compared with growth of 5.8 per cent a year earlier.
According to data in the Economic Survey 2012, released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Planning last week, the slowdown in agriculture — Kenya’s key economic driver, employing over 80 per cent of the country’s labour force and accounting for quarter of the country's GDP - was due to unfavourable weather in some regions, and the weakening of the Kenyan shilling, which increased the prices of farm inputs.
A new system that allow food crops to be irrigated with seawater is being trialled by the University of Surrey in the UK offering a potential miracle for Kenyan coastal farmers grappling with a scarcity of fresh water for their produce, even as they live beside a huge water mass.
According to the UK researchers, led by Professor Adel Sharif, 97.5 per cent of the world's water is salty and not usable for the great majority of agriculture. Farmers and local NGOs have tried to resolve this by working to adapt soils to the salt levels, but with poor results.
Farmers in the Taita Taveta area of Mombasa, who predominantly grow cassava, onions and tomatoes, have been supported by several NGOs to apply simple water purifying techniques, and treat soils to adapt to salty water. “But nothing has ever changed. We get very high yielding crops, but the returns are ever poor thanks to lack of fresh water,” said Mwakazi Kizombe, a farmer in the area who has worked with more than 10 different organisations in seeking a solution to the fresh water shortage.
However, the low-cost UK solution, which the scientists hope to roll out world wide in three years time, will make seawater irrigation on a large scale a realistic and sustainable solution to food supply problems, without either high pressure pumps or expensive distillation units. Instead, the new approach makes use of the natural process of evaporation alongside a membrane designed to retain the impurities in the water, including the salts, allowing only pure water to reach the plants.
The project has built on Professor Sharif's work on Manipulated Osmosis Desalination (MOD), which is used in Gibraltar and Oman to produce drinking water for human consumption. MOD is currently the leading technology for desalination, reducing energy use by up to 30 per cent compared to conventional desalination plants.
The University team is now working alongside governments and disaster relief NGOs worldwide to deliver community-scale sustainable technology to improve water for drinking, sanitation and agriculture.
The project sits beside another one for African and Pacific countries called The Seawater Greenhouse, which aims to create fresh water from seawater using an adapted greenhouse.
The technology gravitates or pumps sea water and uses it to humidify and cool the air inside a greenhouse, and then uses solar panels to evaporate and distill fresh water.
Later, the humidified air is expelled from the greenhouse and used to promote the growth of plants outside and the slightly more concentrated residual seawater is returned to the ocean.
Kenya is a officially classified as a water stressed country, but it has a 500 km coastline. Water harvesting, which government has worked hard to advocate, hasn't picked up fast enough as farmers still count on disappointing rains. “If we can inculcate this irrigation by sea water, then embrace rain water harvesting, then farmers in the whole country can grow whatever they want anytime of the year, which is where we want to move agriculture to,” said Matilda Nzioka from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
The introduction of a real time early warning system for pastoralists in the arid Turkana county has promised to halve the livestock mortality rate during droughts, offering hope to thousand of pastoralists who peg their economic survival on livestock.
Under the Waterhole Monitoring System project funded by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to a tune of $30,000, the University of Nairobi and Texas ANM University are using water levels as an indicator of impending drought, which will then inform intervention measures months before disaster strikes.
Data on the water levels of the pans and rivers and on body conditions of the animals will be collected on a weekly basis and posted in smartphones. The information will then be sent using GPRS and stored in a cloud server at the touch of a button.
Based on this information, anomalies will be identified by comparing current estimates with historical values in order to issue alerts and advisories. Results will be made available on the internet to allow for detection and communication of the anomalies to relief agencies and National Disaster Response coordinators.
It is hoped that this will assist in helping to plan migratory movement for the livestock based on the availability of water and pasture. The electronic alerts system is a departure from the past where slow and voluminous paperwork would take an average three months to interpret an imminent drought, which would then catch scientists and pastoralists flat footed.
“You picture a situation where we are collecting information manually, take it to our offices, try to piece it together and then use estimates, which at times were wrong, to explain to the pastoralists when we anticipated a dry spell.
What this new model does is that it assists us to track the progress of water levels and predict way before on when a dry spell or drought might strike, giving pastoralists enough time to plan their next move. What we have seen so far with the model is that it is very accurate,” said Dr. Job Onditi, who has been involved in the project.
Already, the pastoralists have been trained on measuring the water levels and filling the data on the forms, which will then be inputted into the smart phones by people in the area who have been trained to upload the measurements.
The project, which is being rolled out in the six districts of Turkana County, will also set up fully fledged water monitoring satellite stations, which will use satellite images to estimate water availability in a particular area by telling how much rainfall an area is likely to receive.
“You can imagine what this then means to the pastoralists. It means we are able to advise them beforehand on where and when to move for pasture, which not only reduces the number of drought related livestock diseases, but also contains conflicts between communities fighting for limited pasture,” sais Dr. Onditi. This year, about 300 pastoralists have died in fighting in North Eastern province over pasture.
The satellite stations have been successfully used by the International Livestock Research Institute in its ground breaking livestock insurance scheme, which draws on data from satellites to create an index on vegetation levels.
When vegetation levels drop because of drought or poor weather, farmers are paid. Already some 650 families in the drought areas have received pay outs following a recent drought in the North that killed 300,000 goats and sheep in the area out of a population of around two million in Turkana District, according to the 2009 National Housing and Population Census.
It is hoped the monitoring of the waterholes and rivers will also better management of the environment in terms of land degradation brought about by the excessive concentration of livestock during droughts.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
In a new move to reinvigorate wheat production, which has fallen drastically in recent years impacting food prices and GDP growth, scientists have released two wheat varieties that are resistant to a catastrophic wheat stem rust originating from Uganda and responsible for 50-70 per cent of yield losses.
The deadly mutant fungus, Ug99, named after its discovery in Uganda in 1999, is spread by wind-borne spores. By 2003, most of Kenyan's wheat varieties had been identified as susceptible to the fungus which turns fields of wheat into black stubble, with empty spikes that hold little or no grain.
Scientists from KARI and across the world have been hunting for ways to provide a superior variety, which has culminated in the unveiling of the two new wheat varieties, dubbed Eagle10 and Robin.
Since 2005, KARI has screened over 200,000 wheat germplasms, of which only 10 per cent were found to have some resistance to Ug99. Of the 10 percent, only a handful could adapt to the Kenyan environment.
The selected varieties then underwent advanced trials in wheat growing areas and at the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS).
"The first step of screening involved identifying some wheat germplasm which were resistant," he explained,” said Tom Kibe a breeder from KARI
Then, the experts evaluated these lines, checking if they would be suitable for commercial production in Kenya. Those which looked like a good bet were then developed further for the Kenyan farmer.
"That was how Eagle10 and Robin wheat varieties were born," explained Kibe at the KARI centre in Njoro, Rift Valley. "Both varieties have very good baking and bread-making qualities."
Eagle10 was selected for lower altitude regions such as lower Narok, Naivasha and Laikipia in Rift Valley, while Robin is for the medium to high altitude areas like Njoro, Mau Narok and Timau.
KARI is now working with the Kenya Seeds Company to multiply the seeds with a hope of producing more than 10 tons of the new seed variety in the course of the year. KARI has also set aside 12 hectares in Njoro exclusively for wheat breeding. KARI in Njoro is one of only a handful of screening centres for stem rust resistance around the world.
Koome Kotu is among the thousand farmers in Narok now willing to try wheat again with the new varieties, albeit cautiously, after Ug99 previously wiped out an entire two acres of his wheat. “It's a moment painful enough for me to relive. I spent close to Sh100,000 in one season on fungicides alone. It was trying this one on one day then waking up to realize the disease had spread further then getting advice from the agrovets to try another fungicide.
“I was preparing to harvest and had actually secured a lucrative deal with a regional company together with fellow farmers to sell them our wheat. Within a week I had lost yields worth Sh2million and the disease migrated to my neighbours. It has taken a lot of convincing me to go back to wheat, and even if I am going, I need time to actually see that these varieties are superior. I will only plant the varieties on half an acre,” said the 50-year-old former traffic police officer.
Narok is one of the leading wheat producing regions in the country, but was among the hardest hit regions by the Ug99 fungus, drastically affecting wheat supply in the country and pushing wheat flour prices up by 100% in 2008. The drop in wheat production and in Narok output again last year was recently flagged by the Ministry of Planning as one of the factors that slowed Kenya's economic growth in 2011.
The national demand for wheat has increased to 900 tonnes against national production of 300 tonnes, with demand rising by some 5 per cent each year on rural urban migration and changing dietary habits.
This has seen Kenya import about 60 percent of its wheat needs, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
But while it is not nearly as widely grown as maize or rice, wheat nevertheless is an important component of the country’s domestic food production - being grown on about 4 per cent of the country’s arable land, as 160,000 hectares out of 4,000,000 hectares of arable land.
“The demand for wheat also now means that we have to get it right with wheat. We are blessed to have one of the best research institutions in the country that even leading scientists in the world use for their research. We need to tap into that. This disease resistant varieties are our best bet to encourage farmers back to wheat farming. We are glad farmer field schools have been very integral in pushing for this varieties among the farmers,” said Mweka Nzomo an officer at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
The development of the financial services sector, fast-tracked through international initiatives, is emerging as potentially transformatory for agriculture in East Africa, with up to 40,000 farmers in Kenya and Rwanda now set to gain from an entirely novel insurance scheme designed to protect regional farmer’s from losses to crops and livestock caused by bad weather.
The outcomes emphasise how closely linked agriculture is to the overall performance of the economy.
All the country's major crops registered declines in production in 2011, except for rice, cotton, pyrethrum and sisal, which were driven upwards by the emergence of new markets, such as cotton exports to China. Global supply constraints also resulted in better prices for tea and coffee. However, tea output dropped in the first quarter of 2012, due to depressed rainfall, with many tea growing regions also suffering severe tea frost.
Wheat production recorded the biggest dip in production to 105,000 tonnes in 2011 from 200,000 tonnes in 2010, due to a severe drought that hit the main producing areas around Narok that contribute an estimated 40 per cent of the national crop. However higher prices at the international and local markets increased the value of some of the crops.
“The value of marketed maize production, for example, more than doubled from the 2010 levels to Sh10.1 billion, mainly as a result of higher prices paid to farmers,” the Economic Survey 2012 said.
At 4.4 per cent, Kenya’s economic growth stands at less than half the 10 per cent target the country needs to achieve and sustain in the next 18 years to realise the goal of becoming a middle income state by the year 2030.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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