Africa has a huge land mass, but little to cultivate. However, new research highlighting the risk of land shortages causing civil wars and food shortages, reports that the means now exist to convert the continent's huge swathes of rocky land into arable space: as pioneer farmers in Kenya are already proving with ventures that are turning apparently barren land into vibrant commercial ventures.
Kenya’s arid and semi arid land covers some four-fifths of the country. But recent research by Africa Farmtech, a continental agricultural think tank, reports that with the right resources, such as enough water, high yielding drought resistant crops and improved farm management, Africa can turn its bushy and rocky land into food producing farms. It's a claim that is being borne out by farmers in Kenya.
A tedious and painful procedure, farmers often have to work with mattock, pick axe and other tools to make the poor land suitable for crop production. But the results can be outstanding.
When Thomas Ngwiri was cheated in a land buying deal that went sour 22 years ago, he had to make do with a three acre piece of dry, rocky land that could hardly yield anything.
“My wife wept and literally collapsed after seeing the land I had bought. She wondered how we would grow enough food to sustain our family on that land,” recalled Mr. Ngwiri, a retired public service driver and a farmer in Naiborom village, Laikipia District.
Today, however, that same land produces enough to cater for the family’s food and a surplus that is supplied to local markets in a venture that has made him an envy of many. The farm has a variety of fruits, including pineapples, pawpaws, avocado, citrus fruits, passion fruits and mangoes. The farmer also keeps chickens, ducks, cows, and a few dairy goats.
“I have used at least Sh50, 000 to convert my formerly rocky land in to what it is today. With all the crops and livestock on the farm, I have long recouped my investment,” said Mr. Ngwiri, who now sells pineapples worth some Sh200,000 a week, grown on the broken rocks. He also grows dry land crops, such as cassava and pigeon peas, which are both hardy and suited to dry conditions.
The cultivation remains hard. “Cassava tubers sometimes have to be harvested with mattocks as the ground is too hard for hoes and other equipment,” said Mr. George Kamau, an agricultural extension officer.
But the harvest is large and profitable.
Large tubers, some weighing over 6kg provide food security on the farm. The surplus is sold at his gate to retailers who take it to neighbouring markets.
With soil being a scarce commodity in the rehabilitated land, its continued formation is vital. The addition of manure from cattle, donkeys, goats and chicken is vital and continuous.
A tree belt has been established on the farm to act as a windbreaker and provide dead leaves for manure. Trees grown on the farm include gravellier, eucalyptus and croton.
Wind breakers reduce sheet erosion brought about by the windy spells, especially during the dry months of January to March.
But it is not just Mr. Ngwiri who has taken up land reclamation. Having completely used his own farm for crop production, Mr. Joseph Kamenju approached an absentee landlord in his neighbourhood for his
rocky three acre piece of land.
“He gave me the land to make the best out of. He cared less what I did with the land he had given up on as worthless,” said Mr. Kamenju, a father of four.
Three years on, he is about to recoup the Sh300,000 he used in its rehabilitation.
“The owner is proud of my achievement and is willing to sell me the land. He has occasionally brought his relatives to witness the transformation their rocky land has undergone,” said Mr Kamenju.
But it hasn’t been easy. “We had to manually break and remove the stones, as no tractor could work on the rocky land. We used the wheel barrows to take the rocks away.”
Sometimes farm hands had to be hired to break the stones and move them. But even the stones are being used in smart ways.
Mr. Kamenju has used the rocks to construct two reinforced water tanks. Stones heaped in a line along tree belts are also being used as an apiary to host beehives.
Returns from the reclaimed land have been encouraging to other farmers.
Two years ago, Mr. Kamenju harvested 60 bags of maize and five bags of beans from the three acre piece of land. At Sh2,000 per 90 kilo bag of maize and Sh4,000 for beans, he raked in Sh140, 000. With the cost of growing the crop estimated at Sh50, 000, he realised a profit of Sh90,000.
And even with the undesirable weather and the rising cost of fertilizer since 2008, Mr. Kamenju was last year able to harvest 40 bags of maize. Inspired by Israel’s famed land reclamation example, Mr. Kamenju believes nations with poor soils, but with water sources can rehabilitate land and be able to feed their people.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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