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Growing from emergency to sustainability

Organic farming techniques are taking off in Kenya - but not for the reasons you might expect. Peter Newbigin explains.

Over 12 million Kenyans experience chronic food and nutritional insecurity. This is a problem with many causes: failed rains or perennial flooding, declines in crop productivity, desertification and inefficient food distribution systems.

Kenya Red Cross Society is addressing this issue through a portfolio of food security projects, from emergency hunger safety nets to the introduction of resilient seed varieties and training communities in modern farming methods.

Australian Volunteers for International Development are working with Kenya Red Cross to explore the practical implications and cost effectiveness of various interventions. Horticulturists Meredith Hatherly and Peter Newbigin helped to set up greenhouses and train Red Cross volunteers and local farmers in sustainable market gardening techniques.

Peter Newbigin believes that while it is unrealistic to expect 'glossy outcomes' or quick fixes to such a complex issue as food insecurity, organic crop management could benefit many of Kenya's most vulnerable.

Food production and supply is fundamental to food security. Tens of thousands of Kenyans rely on 'small holder' or subsistence farming to provide for their families and communities.

With this in mind, Peter undertook a feasibility study on small holder greenhouses, which had been trialled as a means to reduce reliance on rain-fed food production and a tool to train farmers in new horticultural methods. The study found that greenhouses required substantial and ongoing financial investment and a relatively high level of technical competence, making them a risky proposition for vulnerable communities. Many greenhouses introduced in Kenya over the last two years have failed to sustain crops.

Organic farming is now being promoted - not as a label to attract discerning buyers, but as a way to reduce financial strain on low-income communities and improve the sustainability of production.

"When we talk of the most vulnerable, these people are interested in how they can manage their resources," Peter says. "For example, by picking caterpillars off their crop every morning, farmers utilise labour - a plentiful resource - and avoid expensive pesticides. Organic soil management techniques such as mulching can reduce water use and reliance on commercial fertilisers.

"Adapting agricultural practices to suit conditions in each vulnerable community and optimise use of their resources eliminates many of the risks associated with generic 'quick fix' packages."

Kenya Red Cross is now exploring ways to increase the value of its existing greenhouses, including revising its training programs. "Initially, farmers being taught new techniques and technologies tied their new skills exclusively to the greenhouse environment," Peter says. "We are encouraging new skills out of the greenhouse by adapting them into field settings."

Sustainable change will only occur through long-term engagement with vulnerable communities, with targeted education and community ownership as critical success factors.

Farmers' needs and concerns must be considered at every step. "When we previously introduced intensive farming methods, we encouraged farmers to dedicate part of their land to cash crops such as tomato and watermelon and alternative staples such as cassava. They would not consider diversifying their crops until they had seen that they would produce enough maize to feed their families," Peter recalls. "People need to fill their stomachs first. Only then will they be open to new initiatives."

Food insecurity is a dynamic issue, continuously and uniquely evolving in every community and across every landscape. Kenya Red Cross is committed to helping the most vulnerable households to improve their food security. Whether through greenhouse production, organic farming techniques or income generation through cash crops, the key is to increase understanding of production techniques and adapt approaches to the unique conditions of each community.

"Providing people with education and the skills to adapt their local agricultural practice is the most effective thing we can do to improve food security in Kenya's most vulnerable communities."


Photo: Australian Red Cross/Glen Smith