Scientists are fronting agroecological farming approaches as a pathway to build affordable and resilient food systems even as as millions of smallholder farmers in Kenya struggle to respond to the changing climate amid global COVID-19 pandemic.
Climate risks pose serious threats to Kenya’s sustainable development goals. According to estimates from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by 2030, climate variability and extremes will lead to losses in the agriculture sector equivalent to 2.6 percent of GDP annually.
Now scientists say small holder farmers can buffer impacts from erratic weather patterns if they consider Agroecology principles, a diversified farming system that aims for longer-term sustainability of the natural ecosystem and social livelihoods besides the production of safe and sufficient food.
In this context, a recent study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Biovision Foundation and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) shows a strong positive link between the application of agroecology principles and climate resilience in Kenya.
The comprehensive study “The Potential of Agroecology to Build Climate-Resilient Livelihoods and Food Systems” compiles and assesses evidence from scientific literature and from the field showing how agroecology builds climate resilience for smallholder farmers. Increased soil health, (bio-)diversity in farming approaches as well as the creation and sharing of locally, peer-generated knowledge have proven to be powerful effects of Agroecology for this.
William Odhiambo, 60, a farmer in Busia county, who grows maize and indigenous vegetables says due to the rising cost of farm inputs, agroecology provides various options of farming techniques that use locally available farm inputs such as animal manure.
Affirmative signs from the field
In a case study comparison at various sites in Kenya, for 7 out of 13 resilience indicators by the FAO SHARP Tool, agroecology-based systems performed significantly better. The agroecology group scores better in the averages of environmental aspects, economic components and significantly better in agronomic practices.
Agroecological farmers also more commonly use land management practices such as agroforestry, crop rotation and manure/composting to increase the temporal and spatial heterogeneity when compared to their non-agroecological counterparts.
“The crop yield has increased and land productivity has improved because of embracing environmentally-friendly methods of farming,” says Odhiambo, who has practised the new system of farming for nearly five years.
A community-based approach, Sustainable Land Water Management (SLM) measures, reforestation as well as diversification (such as beekeeping), has shown to have the potential to increase the communities’ resilience to face climate change related short-term impacts.
Political support yet lacking for up-scaling agroecology
Through the implementation of its five-year government development plan, Kenya aims to reduce the number of food-insecure people by 50 percent and achieve a 27 percent reduction in malnutrition among children under the age of five years.
In line with this endeavour, the report shows how sustainable agroecological farming practices can help tackle climate change on three levels, including strengthening resilience and adaptation as well as increasing mitigation. Nonetheless, it is still struggling with insufficient political backing to actually take off.
The study reveals several insights on the policy potential of agroecology in Kenya and describes existing opportunities and challenges to institutionalizing agroecology. For example, no policy specifically related to agroecology exists within the current national agriculture and climate change policy arena, even though there are some closely related frameworks. A further factor limiting scaling up and out of agroecological approaches is low awareness about their resilience potential.
“Having agroecology embedded in existing agricultural, food, environmental and climate change policies is important so that when implementation and budgetary allocations are made for such policies, agroecology can also be part of it,” Mary Nyasimi, Executive Director of the Nairobi-based Inclusive Climate Change Adaptation for a Sustainable Africa and a co-author of the report.
Furthermore, climate change is becoming a critical concern in Kenya since it is deterring development efforts, especially in the agricultural sector. Societal awareness of the impacts of climate change are growing and as a consequence, there is an increasing potential for systemic alternatives to conventional agriculture.
“Kenya needs strong consumer movements to advocate for agroecology farming practices,” researcher Nyasimi said, adding that consumers should have a voice concerning what type of food is grown and how it is grown.
Looking at the study results, Frank Eyhorn, CEO Biovision Foundation says that “decision makers must reset the course towards Agroecology and Agrobiodiverstiy based approaches in order to be able to deal with climate change and provide farmers a decent economic and social livelihood.”
There is an initial dawn of hope for this: devolution has provided a chance for county governments to develop policies based on the prevailing circumstances. For instance, Kiambu county has developed a policy on agroecology as the first one among all the 47 counties while on national level an Intersectoral Forum on Agroecology and Agrobiodiversity (ISFAA) was established only recently.
By Malachi Motano