As rains pound different parts of the country wreaking havoc, in Mwingi West, in the semi-arid Kitui County, just 171km from Nairobi, the sun is blazing hot.
There are no dark clouds or high humidity, an indication that it will rain.
“That is how it is always here. We count ourselves lucky if it rains during the so-called long rainy season that begins in April and ends in June, and if it does, you can be sure the rains won’t last a week,” says Margaret Muli, a farmer from Muna village in Thaana sub-location.
But hers is not a story of despair. Well, it was three years ago as she had to depend on alms and food aid from the government and well-wishers to feed her children.
That, however, is no longer the case despite the tough climatic conditions.
The mother of seven, who owns three acres, is able to produce green maize throughout the year.
She further produces enough vegetables for her family and local market throughout the year. And that is not all, she grows fodder for her goats and cows.
From a distance, Muli’s crop on her farm looks like a staircase. The furthest maize crop in the horizon is ready for harvesting. The second layer has a crop that will be ready in less than two months, and another one is two weeks old.
On another section, workers are ploughing the land with ox-plough as others plant maize.
“All these people needed was water for irrigation, given the elusive rains,” says Serah Mwingi, the ActionAid International Kenya region’s officer.
“We had been giving them food for decades, but we decided to change the tact, and show them how to grow the food using irrigation.”
COST OF EQUIPMENT TOO PROHIBITIVE
But there was problem. The cost of equipment to pump water for irrigation for those living near water sources was too prohibitive.
According to Mwingi, a single pump, ideal for pumping water to at least 1km costs about Sh240,000. On the other hand, six-metre pipes cost Sh480 each. For one to pump water, say for a distance of 800 metres, they will need 140 pipes, which totals Sh68,000.
ActionAid collaborated with Australian Aid to mobilise some 80 farmer groups in three dry-land areas of Kitui, Isiolo and Embu counties.
Each group consisted of 25 households with an average of seven people.
And three years ago, the groups were bought irrigation equipment, one for each group living near a water source.
Groups with water pumps have timetables showing which household is going to use the pump and the pipes, and at what time. “We keep rotating among individual farmers so that every week, each interested member can access it at least two times,” says Margaret.
Those living away were helped construct water ponds for every household, fitted with a heavy polythene dam-liner to hold the water.
The ponds are used to harvest run-off water whenever it rains.
Today, all the households that took advantage of the support are now food secure, with some of them supplying foodstuff to the local market and some to Nairobi.
Margaret, for instance, sells her produce every week earning an average of Sh3,000. On the day I visited, she had sold maize worth Sh4,600 at Sh12.50 per piece.
Justus Musyimi Kavine, Margaret’s neighbour, has found a niche in watermelon farming, using water from the ponds.
“When I dug my water pond, I started by farming vegetables and tomatoes. But early last year, I tried my hands on watermelon, and I have discovered wealth in it.
I harvested about 10 tonnes of the fruit from my leased one-acre. This earned me Sh107,000, and I used Sh60,000 to buy 1.5 acres of land,” says the father of four children.
Like many other farmers in the area, he pays school fees for his three children using money from the farm.
On her farm, Muli plants sukuma wiki and other types of vegetables in ‘basins’. The land is cultivated in a way to form basin like structures that hold water for a longer time.
She is now saving to buy a pump so that she does not rely on the group equipment whenever she needs to irrigate on her crop.
“I have now identified my livelihood, and I don’t think I will ever again queue for food aid,” she says.
Njue Njangungi, the agricultural extension officer for Kyome Thaana Ward, noted that the emerging pests and diseases pause the biggest challenge to the farmers.
“The new pest, Tuta absoluta, is a huge problem to farmers growing tomatoes. There is also need to strengthen co-operative movements in those areas so that the farmers can market their produce collectively to reduce the inflow of middlemen,” he says, adding there is adequate availability of certified seeds.
One of the obvious benefits of rainwater harvesting is that the practice eases pressure on other regular fresh water.
Building dams along riverbeds to hold water for structured use has greater potential to enhancing food sufficiency.
Water pans help to hold floodwater for a sunny day.
Irrigation consumes about 70 per cent of all fresh water resources globally, according to the 2012 International Fund for Agricultural Development report that addresses water and food security.
In Kenya, food security remains elusive especially in many arid areas although the government has embarked on several agricultural initiatives expected to put food in the mouths of millions.