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Farmers turning to the ‘wonder’ grass to restore soil fertility and feed their animals

A herd of cattle grazing in Kajiado County. Photo by KNA.
A herd of cattle in Kajiado county quenching their thirst at an abandoned quarry. Photo by KNA.

For  years, thousands of acres of land at Baraka range on the slopes of Kuresoi North have been washed away by rain water from the highlands, transforming the once fertile farmlands in Nakuru County into waste lands.

But the trend is gradually being reversed after the Ministry of Agriculture, through the National Agricultural and Rural Inclusive Growth Project (NARIGP) introduced and promoted adoption of brachiaria grass which reclaims land and restores it back to productivity.

The  County Coordinator for the World Bank funded NARIGP, Peter  Githunguri  said over one million splits of the grass have been distributed to 16 villages covering over 7,000 hectares within Kuresoi North Sub-County to reclaim farmlands with steep slopes, huge gullies and unfertile soils.

The  NARIGP project that is also being implemented within 20 selected wards in Molo, Njoro, Bahati and Naivasha sub counties seeks to enhance value addition for sustainable livelihoods and food security in the dairy sector alongside bee keeping, indigenous chicken rearing and sweet potato farming among small holder farmers.

The  Agriculture Extension Officer in charge of Kuresoi North, Elijah Kimani stated that besides promoting adoption of brachiaria grass, the initiative of restoring the farms has also incorporated planting of 100,000 Gravellia Robusta tree seedlings, 28,000 Hass Avocado seedlings, 4,000 pear fruit seedlings and 4,000 plum fruit seedlings.

“Over the last three years, we have rehabilitated bare land by planting trees and supporting growth of naturally occurring vegetation,” said Kimani.

Following initiation of the project the farmers have dug terraces on sloppy ground that have aided in curbing soil erosion, managing to rehabilitate tens of acres of land that were totally unproductive to grasslands. The land now provides pasture for their animals and is also a source of income.

Kimani pointed out that leaves from the trees and shrubs have greatly improved the fertility and soil texture in the region while at the same time providing cover that helps in reducing evaporation whenever it rains.

Kimani observed that soil degradation had been so severe in Kuresoi North that dairy cows were yielding less than 5 liters of milk per animal per day, maize production had dropped to less than 15 bags an acre, potato yields had dipped to the lowest 50 bags an acre while local chicken were laying an average of 60 eggs per bird per year.

“Improper farming practices on the slopes have led to destruction of water pans and springs downstream prompting intervention from NARIGP. Once fertility of soils is restored we project that our daily milk yields per cow will rise to 20 liters per day, while our indigenous poultry will be able to produce 80 to 240 eggs per bird per year,” noted the Extension Officer.

When planted in single lines along the contour, hedges of brachiaria are very effective in soil and moisture conservation. Apart from controlling soil erosion, the drought-resistant grass can be fed to cows.

Githunguri stated that another benefit of the plant is that it is self-propagating and thus does not require replanting. Its roots also grow deep at 15 feet under the soil and hence raging floods cannot easily uproot them.

The  NARIGP project coordinator explained that brachiaria has multiple advantages as the ‘wonder grass’ that could transform Kenya’s dairy sector as it is rich in protein and has more leaves and thinner stems than Napier grass.

He noted that most parts of Kuresoi North that were on slopes had experienced extensive environmental degradation due to poor farming practices leading to siltation and loss of fertile top soils.

“To effectively realize value addition for sustainable livelihoods and food security in the four subsectors we have incorporated the component of sustainable land management through conservation farming.

The topography has allowed rain water to always flow down to the valley in large quantities due to the terrain as a result, a lot of fertile soil is washed away and this poses a major food security challenge in Nakuru County,” stated the Coordinator.

To tackle challenges holding back the dairy, bee, indigenous chicken and sweet potato sub sectors in Kuresoi North, Githunguri said National Agricultural and Rural Inclusive Growth Project (NARIGP) was rehabilitating rural road networks and constructing multipurpose dams, water pans and irrigation schemes that are managed by the community.

Potato farmers in areas of the Sub-County whose soils are being reclaimed can now access certified planting material after NARIGP partnered with various research institutions and seed companies in training locals to mass produce high yielding and disease resistant seed varieties.

The  Chairperson to New Nyota Women Group, Salome Njeri Mwangi said they expected that potato farmers will more than double their yields and incomes through adoption of good agricultural practices and post harvest management technologies.

MsMwangi noted that the crop was very crucial towards attaining food security as Irish potato (Solanum tuberosum) is the second most important food crop in Kenya, after maize. She hailed NARIGP for developing a training curriculum to demonstrate that the tuber can be used as a raw material to produce a variety of products if value chain addition is adopted in the sub sector.

“From former waste lands we are now planting potatoes. Due to poor soils coupled with dependence on rain-fed agriculture we have been registering loses and this affects the entire value chain leading to job loses hence poverty.

Now that we have water pans and irrigation schemes that are managed by the community a number of challenges that have affected quality and quantity of farm produce targeted under the NARIGP program has improved,” noted the chairperson.

The  Association’s Secretary, Jane Omosa observed that challenges of declining soil fertility and increasing acidity had been compounded by farmers’ failure to test for the status of their soils.

Boosting utilization of certified seeds for potato growers in Kenya she said had the potential of improving production of the crop to 40 tons per hectare against the current seven tons per hectare.

By  Anne  Mwale

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