Permaculture Farming: Crop Diversity

Farm Africa
Friday, 9th September 2016

Farmers across Africa are learning the importance of crop diversity. Here Sabina Julius has diversified into chickens for when frequent droughts prevent her crops from growing.

For the two thirds of people in Kenya who rely on the food they grow and animals they keep, frequent droughts can leave many struggling to produce enough to feed their families.

In recent years, Kenya’s Kitui County has suffered from significant variations in climate, with serious impacts on rain-fed agricultural production and food security in the south east of the country.

Onesmus Mwangangi is an agricultural expert at Farm Africa, an international charity that tackles poverty in eastern Africa by assisting farmers to grow more, sell more and sell for more.

Raised on a farm in Kitui, Onesmus has spent a lifetime witnessing dramatic shifts in climate common to the region’s semi-arid lands which make farming tough for smallholders. In recent years he has noticed many changes to the local environment which are making life even harder. He worries that climate change might be the cause and the situation will worsen in the future.

“The rains here have changed since I was young,” he says. “Growing up things were very different, we had more rainy days and it was much wetter. We had many springs and water points so getting water was not a challenge.

“Things started changing in the early 1990s. The rains have become more unreliable and many water sources in Kitui have completely dried up. This year the first rain came at the end of April, a month later than it was supposed to. It only lasted a few weeks with poor distribution and stopped before the crops were able to grow to maturity. As a result, farmers in this region have lost over 80% of their crops due to lack of rain.”

Sabina Julius, a 43-year-old mother of five, is one of the many being affected by the increasingly frequent droughts. She explains, “I farm a range of things including beans, cow peas and passion fruit but in recent years I have had lots of crops fail because the rains have been poor. I always hope when I plant that I will be able to get a good harvest but there comes a time when all hopes are lost. If the rains don’t arrive I keep praying but it is frustrating because I cannot make it happen.

“I feel very bad when I think of the money I will lose from the cost of the seeds, the labour that has been used to tend the land, and knowing that next season I will have to do it all again. It is painful but sometimes you have to make hard decisions, you sell whatever you have to make sure that you can feed your children.”

Thankfully Sabina has been able to turn to Onesmus for help, as he explains, “There are lots of things that farmers like Sabina can do to build their long-term resilience to climate shocks and future change, including growing drought-tolerant crops using high-quality seeds, adopting water conservation techniques and diversifying their income streams.”

“One great option is chicken rearing. Instead of being totally dependent on good rains to produce a plentiful harvest, diversifying into poultry farming enables farmers to spread their risk and gives them an important alternative source of income so they are not totally reliant on a good harvest.”

Sabina is chairperson of the Ninye Naku Self Help Group, an all-women’s farmers group she set up to access training from Farm Africa.

Sabina says, “We have learnt lots about poultry farming and this has made me see things in a different light. It is a good way to make money - poultry equals wealth!”

“Chickens have a short production cycle which means I don’t have to wait too long to make a profit because within three months a chick will have grown big enough to sell. Chickens are also easy to manage as once I have given them food I can leave them while I attend to other business.

“I have been keeping poultry for two seasons. Now I have 38 chicks and have separated four hens so they can lay more eggs. I am planning to rear the chicks to maturity to sell and meanwhile I will produce more chicks to keep the cycle going.

“In addition to selling eggs, I have been able to use some for home consumption. Before I couldn’t afford to buy eggs but now they are part of our diet and are contributing to the health of my family.”

For Onesmus, Sabina’s successful poultry business provides a great example of how Kitui farmers can protect themselves against unreliable rains. He reflects, “Now Sabina has good knowledge so even if she doesn’t get a big yield from her harvest, she has livestock to sell as backup. Her risk has been diversified because she has an alternative source of income and is able to divert money that was previously used to buy food into improving her business and covering costs like school fees.”

Further resources

Creating an income from farming oyster mushrooms

How farms are using permaculture design to survive and prosper

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