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Man turns desert into fortune through irrigation

Mandera has been among counties hardest hit by the brutal effects of drought due to climate change.

The region is so dry that some children born two years ago, have never witnessed torrential rain which has been experienced in various parts of the country.

But despite the harsh weather that has wiped out most vegetation and led to emaciated livestock, one farmer boasts a lush farm, deep in the ‘desert’ land.

With shrubs and thorny vegetation, only one farm is noticeable from far.

Noor Adan Mohammed, who has no formal education, runs an admirable green wonder  along River Dauwa flowing from the Ethiopian highlands across the common border with Ethiopia.

So green is his farm, the images of banana plantations would pass for a plantation in Gusiiland or Meru.

His vast farm is dotted with pawpaw, passion fruits, grafted oranges, lemons, mangoes, water melons at various stages of growth.

While his neighbours wait for handouts from NGOS and the county government, he has become a food supplier in his village and beyond.

Indeed, he is setting the pace for locals, who still hold the mentality that only livestock can thrive in the area.

“I have proven that farming done the right way brings returns. I am rewriting the story of Mandera by proving to locals that crops can do well here if good husbandry is practiced,” says Hassan who started the venture eight years ago.

With water being the biggest headache for herders, he sources his irrigation water from River Daua that forms the natural border between Kenya and Ethiopia.

His farm stretches some 16.7 acres and on it stand 1,000 pawpaw-fruit trees, some 746 oranges trees among other fruits

So what solutions does he use to outsmart dry weather?

First, he rotates his crops from nuts to onions so that the farm can have healing period.

This he says, helps to naturally keep diseases at bay and rejuvenate the soil.

He does pruning at the right time to control diseases and optimal growth.

Additionally, he practices good tillage and does mulching to maintain soil moisture.

“In an arid area like Mandera evaporation is common so when you water your crops, even before the roots abord it, it has already evaporated. But when you put mulch over the soil like a plastic one or grass, water is retained in the soil,” he explains.

Crop rotation also helps Hassan to guard against vicious weeds that rob the main crops of nutrients and water, leading to stunted growth.

“Manure is more useful than artificial fertilisers, that is how I keep my farm organic,” he points out.

For the stubborn fungal, viral and bacterial infections he sprays to save his fruit trees.

Noor is such a stickler for best practice rules, his farm has gotten rave reviews from renown figures in the area including Governor Ali Roba and Mandera County Director of Agriculture ,Bernard Ogutu.

The farm is often used as a demonstration site.

“He is a good farmer who follows the rule book. We are supporting him with extension services and basic infrastructure like water tanks to take his farming to the next level,” says Mr. Ogutu.

Given that he is among the few who farm in a largely pastoralist community, Ogutu says the county agriculture officials always visit his farm to guide him through the process.

“There were a few misses like spacing, pruning at the right time. He needs to reinvent the farm with drip irrigation to help cut costs,” says Ogutu.

Noor also grows maize for fodder for his animals.

Because he is the only farmer in his village, market is not an issue.

“There is never a market glut here. I sell at the farm gate and I incur no transport costs.”

Having grown paw paws for years and being the main crop on the farm, he has advise for those looking to grow them, “Pawpaws do well in warm areas but must be sheltered from strong winds because stems and roots are not very strong. Irrigation also helps flowers guard against abortion,” Noor says.

He adds: “Soils must be well drained and in flood prone areas ensure there is no water logging or it will kill crops within days. Pawpaw roots are very sensitive to water. The rest is just normal weeding to guard against stunted growth.”

But his success is not without challenges. He pumps water three days for up to 28 hours to serve the entire farm.

“I use 56 litres of fuel every pumping session costing me Sh56, 000 to keep the plants alive or else you would have to wait for Allah to send the rains to Mandera,” Hassan says jokingly.

Weighed down by fuel costs, he is thinking about solar solutions.

“The costs of installation is Sh5.8million. I am shopping for cheaper working solutions,” Noor says.

He has also suffered crop failure.

“Sometime back, I planted about 3,000 grafted oranges and only 750 survived. There are insects that attack my fruits when they are about one metre tall. It can be discouraging but you have to hang in there as a farmer.”

He has sought the help of county officials to deal with the issue.

“I always report to the county officials when I face a nagging problem. It is good to report the problem early enough so that the remedy can work,” Hassan advises.

He says he settled on grafted oranges for a number of reasons.

“Grafted oranges take shorter period to mature. Instead of seven years, fruition starts after three to four years.”

Grafting also helps make citrus fruits disease resistant and adapt to hot dry weather.

He also intercrops cereals and legumes to keep weeds away. Another challenge is the waiting period.

“There is the long waiting period after investing your money in the farms. You stay up to three years waiting for pioneer fruits. You have to tend to the trees.

A father of 23 children is tired of selling oranges and mangoes more or less same price each year.

He is targeting cottage industry to do value addition to his produce.

“The future is in value addition and embracing technology that is the way I intend to go in the coming years.”

By Dickson Githaiga

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