Horticulture Farmers innovate to Conserve Dwindling Water Supplies

Horticulture Farmers innovate to Conserve Dwindling Water Supplies

Across the country, water availability has reached depressed levels at an unprecedented rate. This, experts attribute to failed rains as a result of climate change and the overexploitation of groundwater.

Buffeted by the water scarcity, vanguard horticulture farmers are embracing innovative practices that are delivering payoffs.

Before 54-year-old Samuel Maingi, a farmer from Mwala in Eastern Kenya, began rain water harvesting, he used to get one harvest of horticultural crops per year.

Now, he gets three or more consistent harvests a year, and earns up to five times what he used to. For 30 years, Maingi relied on rains to grow his crops, which meant he could only farm from October to December and from March to May, and even then, he would sometimes lose his crops to poor rains.

After learning about rain water harvesting from Ministry of Agriculture technicians he invested around Sh113,000 to dig up a pond that would hold 150,000 litres, line it with polythene, and create furrows for trapping road water run-off and rainfall. It took him a month to build the pond.

As soon as he had a consistent water supply, Maingi diversified his crops from normal staples like maize and legumes to include watermelons, tomatoes, egg plants and onions.
With the water pond and a manual water pump he was also able to extend growing of tomatoes from an acre to up to 3 acres. “Initially, it was tedious watering each tomato with watering cans,” he said. But the water pump made watering easier and he also introduced drip irrigation.

Before he began water harvesting, his harvests came when agricultural production was at its peak, and prices lowest, meaning he would get around Sh12,000 per harvest. Now, with multiple harvests for some of his crops and near continuous harvesting of others, he calculates he earns around Sh40,000 per harvest from his horticulture alone.

Nonetheless, the water pond itself is reliant on the rains that fall, and if the rains fail badly, it can still leave him short. “Last year we had no rains,” he said.
For this reason, he’s now extending his water harvesting to capture more of what does arrive, with plans afoot to build a new pond to ensure he always has enough water for his 7 acres.
His initiatives have been part of a shift that has seen Mwala area emerging as a hub of rain water harvesting with steadily more residents storing runoff and rainwater in underground reservoirs.

Besides selling his horticulture to local markets Maingi has built up a consistent clientele in Nairobi for his fruits, which now include citrus, mangoes and tomatoes. The success of his water harvesting has also made his farm a demonstration location for other farmers.

The growing realization that guaranteed year round harvest can only be realized through low cost water management activities like water harvesting is now seeing more smallholder farmers and other industry players join hands to create awareness. As it is, the water resources are often sufficient, but farmers lack the means to harvest it. As a result, of sub-Saharan Africa’s renewable water resources, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that only 3 per cent is withdrawn for agriculture. Likewise, only 4 per cent of arable land is equipped for irrigation, of which less than 6 per cent is serviced by groundwater.

And as farmers embrace judicious water use, drip irrigation is enjoying brisk uptake among smallholder farmers especially in arid and semi-arid regions, with the technology delivering triple yields compared to the other irrigation methods thanks to its even distribution of water to all crops.

The method uses drip kits which come in different sizes depending on the crop’s needs. A set of drip kit entails a water tank preferably plastic as it is easy to maneuver with during plumbing, a ball valve, filter, supply pipe to the farm and connectors which have openings known as emitters for water outlet around the root of the plant.

The tank, which the primary source of water, is raised at least a meter high in order to give the water gravitational pressure and pump it down the supply pipes. When the valve is opened, the water flows through to the filter in order to only allow pure water to flow to the root of the plant. The supply pipes and connectors are all poly ethylene and are ultra-violet treated to protect them from the impacts of hot sun.

According to a European Irrigation association report on the technology, drip irrigation use among smallholder farmers increase yields and economic gains by greater proportion compared to conventional methods. The report noted that on the same size of land where a farmer stands to get about 2000kgs of tomatoes when conventional methods of irrigation are used they can get over 7000kgs using drip kit technology

The economic use of water by the drip kits has been its selling point compared to other methods of irrigation like sprinkler. “One stand to save a lot of water for instance compared to sprinkler where water is sprinkled all over the land. With drip, the emitters ensure that water drips only at the root of the plant allowing one to use just 1.5litres of water with drip compared to the 10litres when using sprinkler on a plant,” noted Michael Mwaura, an agriculture expert from the University of Nairobi.

In addition, the method also reduces the cost of labour to a farmer. Mary Githinji a farmer who has adopted the technology for over 8 years noted, “I no longer need a lot of workers to help me irrigate my tomato plantation as I used to when using watering cans. The use of drip kit lessens work when it comes to weeding especially during the sunny season as I only uproot weeds around the plant roots since that is the point where water drips”

Noah Ngotiek a vegetable farmer in Narok concurs, “Drip irrigation is a good technology that is leading s to food security because we continue farming even during drought and I can manage to triple my yields especially during drought time where other farmers cant. And with the shortage the demand goes higher meaning more money for me,” said Ngotiek.

The technology also curbs the spread of diseases from one plant to another. Mwangi also noted that there is improved yield when using drip because all plants get same amount of water and therefore their growth is uniform and they end producing better yields.

As the debate on water conservation rages on, biodiversity researchers say that agrobiodiversity practices like growing vegetables and fruits should be actively embraced to combat the climate crisis.

“In order to feed the nation, the country must explore agrobiodiversity, specifically the growing of vegetables and fruits, which have been neglected in favour of maize,” Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a professor of horticulture at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology said.

It makes sense that Kenyans should explore biodiversity. Kenya has ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, the globally negotiated agreement committed to sustainable use of biodiversity. Consequently, agrobiodiversity is being touted as a solution to the biting water stresses facing Kenya.

Indigenous vegetables and fruits are easy to manage, can withstand high and unpredictable temperatures, and are known to have high nutritional value and contain high concentrates of micronutrients, including iron.

“Take the spider plant and African nightshade, which are found in parts of Western and Nyanza provinces, as well as across East Africa. They are known to be nutritious, medicinal and are very rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, anti-oxidants and fibre,” Abukutsa-Onyango said.

The spider plant is known to have high levels of beta-carotene, calcium, protein, magnesium, iron and vitamin C. The plant is also high in antioxidants, which may help prevent diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

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