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Water harvesting, use of irrigation key to all-year-round food production

Saturday June 8 2019

Francis Kaunda irrigates vegetables with water stored in a sand dam in Makueni.

Francis Kaunda irrigates vegetables with water stored in a sand dam in Makueni. Agriculture innovations like irrigation and water harvesting mechanisms remain Kenya's saving grace if the country is to guarantee uninterrupted food production. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

NELSON MAINA
By NELSON MAINA
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The unpredictability of the weather is taking a toll on planting and harvesting seasons and ultimately affecting yields.

Moreover, competition for agricultural land from real estate and mineral exploration is reaching worrying proportions.

The two developments call for the retooling of our farming approaches, with emphasis on land optimisation to ensure farmers get more yields from small pieces of land.

The focus, therefore, should shift to new ways of producing food, which encompass soil rejuvenation techniques, embracing high-value seeds that can withstand harsh conditions and diseases and technology that ensures that we can comfortably produce all-year-round.

As the population grows, there are more mouths to feed despite the shrinking land sizes. Kenya, as is the case with numerous sub-Saharan African countries, continues to grapple with historic low soil fertility rates attributable to overuse of land and over-application of chemicals to boost soil nutrients.

According to a report by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the continent’s losses stand at an approximated $4 billion each year from poor crop yields occasioned by soil health issues.

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Equally, fertiliser use that should help replenish depleted soil nutrients is at its dismal with an application rate of 13kg per hectare compared to 94kg in developed countries.

Various studies have attributed the low uptake of fertilisers to lack of access and prohibitive prices, with farmers walking long distances in search of the all-important input, time they would otherwise be spending on farms.

Packaging of fertilisers in affordable units and ensuring harmonisation across the distribution channels would be a first and crucial step in ensuring crop producers are able to get fertiliser in good time.

The entry of the private sector in repackaging of fertiliser has proven that with the right government support, fertiliser is reaching farmers at the right time.

DEDICATED FOCUS AND PLAN TO COLLECT RAINWATER

A large number of smallholder farmers are stuck with age-old seed varieties and still use seeds from previous harvests in a cycle that has gone on for decades, which is further fanning the low yields on most of the farms.

This is despite changing climatic and soil conditions that have seen entry of new diseases and pests. Research institutions in the country have come up with numerous superior varieties that can withstand harsh weather conditions, diseases and pests and are able to produce more per unit area of land.

Yet by their own admission, less than 10 per cent of farmers who need these varieties know about them. This disconnect can easily be addressed by fostering public-private partnerships that allow the government to tap into the extensive network that the latter enjoys across the country.

Agriculture innovations like irrigation and water harvesting mechanisms remain our saving grace if we are to guarantee uninterrupted food production.

Kenya is one of the most water-stressed countries world over. Yet there hasn’t been any dedicated focus and plan to collect rainwater and store it for future use.

In what has become a predictable phenomenon, whenever it rains, the weathermen warns of floods. Days after the rains stop, we are back to water shortages and grappling with drought.

Judicious use of water on the farms mean embracing irrigation that ensures that plants utilise water to the last drop.

As the government steps up its efforts to boost irrigation as a way of ensuring year-round uninterrupted farming, it is encouraging to see the private sector investing in irrigation technologies that cater to the needs of small-scale farmers, who are 75 per cent of all food producers.

With researchers predicting an ever severe weather cycle that will hit Africa the hardest, taking a toll on vital crops like maize and millet, focus should now be on how to produce more with less. Embracing innovation remains our silver bullet to achieving our food security resolve.

The writer is the communication and marketing manager at Elgon Kenya.