The long rains, from March through May, were plentiful in Kenya this year, following two years of calamitous drought across much of East Africa. The fields and forests are lush on the drive from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, towards snow-capped Mount Kenya, about 150 km to the north-east. Along the road, well-stocked vendors sell tomatoes and oranges, and children walk to school in their crisp uniforms, joking and rough-housing along the way.
For the past seven years, the Mount Kenya East Pilot Project (MKEPP), an ambitious rural renewal initiative, has been operating here in the shadow of Africa's second highest peak after Kilimanjaro. Of course, MKEPP can't take credit for the recent rains or the bounty they bring. But it has succeeded in reversing environmental decline in a sizeable portion of the Mount Kenya watershed. And it has enabled small-scale farmers and their families to build a better, more stable life.
The $25.7 million project is financed by the Government of Kenya; the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a United Nations agency that specialises in reducing rural poverty; the Global Environmental Facility, an international backer of eco-friendly development; and by the residents of the areas where it operates. Project activities cover parts of eight districts and a target population of nearly 1.4 million women, men and children who are either poor or at risk of sliding into poverty.
The overarching goal of the activities is to bolster rural incomes and thereby improve food security. To that end, MKEPP focuses on the sustainable management of natural resources, beginning with water.
ECOSYSTEM UNDER STRESS
"Water was the entry point for this project," says project officer Okach Kephas. "The main problem was the water supply."
In fact, the management of Mount Kenya's water resources has always had ramifications well beyond the immediate vicinity. Rain runoff from the mountain feeds five river basins in the catchment area of the Tana River, Kenya's longest, making the upland region essential to national development.
Over time, however, the region's fragile ecosystem has been severely stressed by the destruction of forests through illegal logging and unsustainable farming. Climate change, too, has contributed to this decline with more frequent and prolonged droughts. By the time MKEPP was envisioned almost a decade ago, the cycle of land degradation and poverty around Mount Kenya was in danger of spinning out of control.
Against this dire backdrop, MKEPP began work in 2004. The project was designed in line with the government's rural development strategy, which posits that resource conservation goes hand in hand with ensuring sustainable livelihoods for small farmers. Because grassroots engagement is one of MKEPP's pillars, the project staff worked closely with community-based organisations from the outset.
Their first priority was protecting the mountain's river basins and watershed. This led to a major push to replant trees on degraded land, notably hilltops and riverine areas where water-retaining topsoil had been washed or blown away.
The reforestation effort has benefited the ecosystem and rural livelihoods alike. To meet the region's need for thousands of seedlings from various tree species, communities in the project area have established nurseries that generate income by selling the young trees in bulk quantities.
By arresting soil erosion, protecting the water supply and initiating low-cost irrigation schemes, Mount Kenya's stewards eventually succeeded in boosting agricultural productivity as well. They also rehabilitated natural springs and captured rainwater with earthen dams to provide more reliable sources of safe water for domestic and agricultural use - especially during the dry season.
In support of these and a wide range of other activities, MKEPP has kept community members involved at every stage. That's crucial, because it will be up to them to build on the progress achieved so far.
"If the people are not involved in the issues of sustainability, everything comes to naught," says Joseph Ng'ang'a, IFAD's Kenya country officer. "It doesn't matter how much money you might have spent. If people aren't taking care of the project, then it's useless."
The project's record seems to bear out this perspective. Even as the people who live in the shadow of Mount Kenya enjoy the benefits of the first decent rains in years, they understand that they cannot thrive for long at the whim of a changing climate. They know, too, that the future of the water and the land is in their hands. And they are holding fast.
Timothy Ledwith is a writer at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which is co-organising Agriculture and Rural Development Day on June 18, ahead of the Rio+20 Summit in Rio de Janeiro.