18 December 2012

Kenya: Innovative Solutions to Climate Challenges

I was recently in Kenya, and had the immense honour of meeting some very special people. I don't mean VIPs, but 'normal' people in special situations, and doing special things, many of them in agriculture.

Farming is hugely important for Kenya. It is the country's main economic sector, even though less than 20 percent of the land is suitable for crops. Kenyan farmers typically cultivate less than two hectares each, often with outdated methods. Crop yields therefore largely remain well below their potential. The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture is engaged in several projects there, including training smallholders in commercial vegetable production, introducing weather insurance, and supporting a major regional biosciences centre.

Winston* is one of those several million Kenyan smallholders who I met on my recent trip. He grows maize for subsistence and peas for cash, in a village near Mount Kenya. At 50-something, Winston has experienced some chilly nights over the years, but he told me about something quite new. "I've lost three pea harvests in a row to frost", he said.

Not far away, weather was also top-of-mind for Alastair. His operations are at the other end of the commercial spectrum. The big farm employs dozens of staff, grows a wide range of crops with expensive machinery, and even has its own school and hospital. But before the weather, all men are equal. Alastair's worry is rain. In many parts of Kenya, that would mean drought. But on Stokebridge Farms, the concern is now distribution. "We still get 700mm over the two rainy seasons", he explains. "But 70 of those now fall in one night."

So what's special about Winston and Alastair? One thing that impressed me was their positive attitude. Both men want to face the challenge head-on. "Extremes are the new normality", is how Alastair puts it. "So we'll change the way we farm."

Fortunately, farmers now have more ways to tackle weather challenges. Some solutions are hi-tech, like crops bred specially to require less water. Today's first examples sit at the upper end of the price bracket, but that should change as more become available.

Then there's the mid-tech type, like drip irrigation for smallholders. Another farmer I met in Kenya, Agnes, is still saving up for hers. Meanwhile, she has followed expert advice and built a small reservoir behind her house. Gravity gets the water to her maize through a conventional hosepipe.

Some of the help might be lower-tech, but is no less innovative. What matters here is less the technology, but the affordability and accessibility. A good example is crop insurance for smallholders. Our foundation is successfully proving that insurance is not just for the rich. If you put the right offer together at the right price, Winston and Agnes will buy it. And so, we now know, will their counterparts in Rwanda. Insurance doesn't change the weather, but it eases the burden of risk on smallholders' shoulders, and encourages them to invest in raising yields.

And as the world's food security depends heavily on its 450 million smallholders, that is much better news than the average weather report.

Paul Castle is communications manager at the Syngenta Foundation

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