15 November 2012

Kenya: Drought Farming Lessons Join Reading and Writing at Schools

Mbeere — At Kamunyagia Primary, year seven student Purity Njigi is learning something new alongside her usual lessons - how to produce enough food to eat when there isn't enough rain.

As part of an effort to help area farmers - and their children - adapt to changing climate conditions, Njigi and other students at the school have formed a Junior Farmers Club, with each member allocated a small portion of land to grow crops and fruit trees.

"It is like a competition," she says - and the results are clear.

Despite the scorching drought in the area, the club's one hectare of land is full of succulently green crops including more than 300 mango trees, more than 200 pawpaw trees, cassava plants and 30 vegetables patches, one for each member of the club.

Water comes from a stream about two kilometers away but "we are always motivated to fetch (it) ... to sprinkle on the crops," Njigi says.

The effort is part of a broader training program for dryland farmers in the region led by ActionAid Kenya. The effort, backers say, has seen food productivity rise in drought-hit parts of Eastern and North Eastern Kenya.

In a country where agriculture is not a core academic subject, the training - being provided to adults as well as children - fills a gap, backers say, particularly as climate change brings more extreme weather and hardships for farmers.

"The last time it rained in this area was seven months ago. But due to these lessons, my family has not gone hungry," said Jemima Nzuki, an adult beneficiary of the Farmers Field School, a program that encourages groups of dry-land farmers to share practical experiences of lessons learned over years.

The food stock in her granary is evidence that the 30-year-old mother of four has learned tricks on how to deal with tough and ever shifting climatic conditions.

"In my granary, I have 80 kilograms of green grams remaining, 100 kilogrammes of cowpeas, 50 kilogrammes of sorghum, and 150 kilogrammes of pigeon peas. This is enough to feed my family for the next seven months. I also have 31 indigenous chickens that I sometimes sell to pay some bills," said Nzuki.

Through weekly lessons moderated by extension officers from ActionAid Kenya, farmers have been able to identify particular improved crops that can flourish on their farms despite elusive rains, learn techniques of planting with limited soil moisture, and discover how to manage the crops in tough climatic conditions.

"These are the same lessons we are taking to school going-children ... We encourage teachers to offer agricultural lessons based on experiments for children to learn good agricultural and life practices," said Philip Kilonzo, a livelihoods technical adviser with the aid group.

Kamunyagia Primary school of Mwea County is one of the schools that have adapted the practical learning approach. As the sun sets, members of the Junior Farmers Club are busy sprinkling water on different drought tolerant crops on their donated bit of land.

"This is not part of their curriculum. Agriculture, though the driver of the country's economy, is not an examinable subject in Kenya's primary schools," said Newton Gitonga, the club's patron and a science teacher at the school.

"However, given the climatic conditions in this area, we strive to give interested students these lessons so that they can duplicate them in their respective homes for survival. The other objective is to equip them with farming knowledge," he said.

Kilonzo said the field school is "not a replacement for formal education. It is not meant to take children out of school and is not a way to promote subsistence agriculture as the only livelihood option for the children. Instead, it is meant to encourage and supports livelihood diversification for better food security for a sustainable future," he said.

Currently, such agricultural clubs exist at 10 primary schools within dry parts of northern and eastern Kenya, he said.

"We believe that by doing this we are building a good foundation for the children, which will help them have a food secure future particularly during this period of ever-changing climatic conditions," Kilonzo said.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science writer based in Nairobi.

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