The 40km stretch between Njoro and Mauche along the dilapidated Njoro -Mau Narok road is dominated by wobbling boda bodas carrying mountains of charcoal bags.
As we turn left to Mauche Trading Centre that sits on the edge of the Mau, the visibly depleted forest complex confronts us. We ascend the escarpment in a series of muddy zigzags; evidence that the long rains have been pounding the area.
Our 5km bumpy drive ends at Loitepes village the home of Chomosa Farmers Self-Help Group.
The group is composed of 32 members who plant potatoes on a six-acre piece of land which they have leased.
Scola Chebet, the group secretary, leads us to one of the flourishing potato farms where the group has specialised in planting Irish potato seeds.
Theirs is one of the few Irish potato seed farms in Nakuru County that sell clean seeds to farmers following the collapse of potato seed production at the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) farm in Molo.
CLIMATE CHANGE ADAPTATION
The group started the venture in 2009 and is reaping the benefits of adapting to smart climate change strategies.
“Since we started embracing the climate change strategies, our production of seeds per acre has risen from between 40-60 bags to between 80-100 bags per acre,” explains Chebet, noting the region faces an acute shortage of clean potato seeds.
“Initially we were planting maize and beans which were doing well but the prices in the market were discouraging,” she says.
In 2013 they attended a training at Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organization (Karlo) Njoro where they were shocked to learn that only one per cent of the potato seeds are produced by the government.
“After receiving the training we decided we must capitalise on the shortfall and fill in the gap by producing our own seeds for home consumption and the excess for selling to other farmers,” offers Chebet.
Apart from water harvesting on small ponds and crop rotation using legumes such as garden peas and dolichos lablab, the group is also incorporating green manure and farm yard manure to improve their yields.
The technologies are implemented through Smallholder Farmers Strategies to Cope with Climate Change (SMACC) in collaboration with six partners -- Egerton University, Karlo Njoro, Boku University (Austria), University of Hohenheim (Germany), Amhara University and Amhara Region Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI) both from Ethiopia
And since they adopted the technologies, Chomosa is slowly becoming a stopover for potato farmers in the region and beyond seeking to buy clean seeds to boost their yields.
The group farm is now a training hub for potato seed production using simple integrated climate change adaptation strategies.
“Before we were digging parallel furrows along our sloppy farms but we changed this when we went for training and we started planting along the contours and tied ridges.”
“Tied ridges improves soil fertility and has a high water retention because unlike when we were digging the furrows, the soil was swept down the stream by running waters but when we adapted the tied ridges technology we have seen a great improvement as more soil is retained,” says Chebet noting that they have been able to save on the use of fertilisers.
Previously, she says, soil erosion, aggravated by water passing along the furrows, swept all the fertiliser.
The farmers were using DAP but after doing soil testing analysis they found that there soil is acidic and changed to NPK.
According to the farmers, land preparation is key and it starts by making sure the farm had not been planted with potatoes previously.
Besides, the land must be well ploughed and all the weeds removed to minimise incidences of diseases.
“Weeds are the prime source of diseases that attack potatoes and it is paramount that a farm must have zero weeds at the time of planting,” says Prof Paul Kimurto, a crops expert at the nearby Egerton University.
The next stage is to prepare furrows that are one-foot deep and are not straight from one end of the farm to the other and then plant the seeds with a spacing of about one foot and make ridges using soil.
“The secret here is that after every one metre of the furrows we dug along the contours we block the flow of water by putting tied ridges using heap of soils. This retains the water as it moves freely in the soil without sweeping away our soils,” says Chebet.
She says to maintain the ridges, farmers must add soil at least three times before harvesting.To fight diseases, she says the group has adapted the positive and negative selection method.
“We identify the diseased plants after three weeks after the first weeding and put a wooden peg and uproot it.”
This is repeated at least twice ahead of the harvesting to make sure whatever is growing is clean seeds. The process is repeated for three seasons.
Some of the diseases that affect potatoes include bacterial wilt, blight and root rot.
To avoid cutting the tubers during harvesting, farmers use blunt sticks to dig mature tubers which are ready after three months.“Last year we harvested 140 bags of 50kg which we sold at Sh2,500 per bag.”
Rael Taiy, a PhD student in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Innovation, notes that the technologies are very effective in increasing yields because by using tied ridges there is efficiency in the management of water which seeps through the soil at a slower rate which is good for the seeds.”
The farmers are, however, yet to overcome the challenges of storage as their small wooden store can only accommodate 40 bags.
Exploitative middle men, inaccessible roads and increasing prices of chemicals are some of the other challenges they still have to grapple with.