As narrated by Sylvia Kuria, organic farmer, Kiambu County, Kenya

Kenya’s Kiambu County has historically been dry. Now, climate change is making the rains scarce and erratic, further testing the abilities of farmers to produce crops.

Since 2020, five harvests have failed due to the lack of rain. Farmers are challenged because they cannot predict the onset of the rains any more. Historically, the long rains began in mid-March and lasted for ten weeks. Now, the long rains arrive only in May and last for just two to three weeks. The short rains expected in October appear only in November and last for a few days. Water conservation is urgently needed, but at a scale that requires collective action. A single smallholder farmer cannot do enough.

Meanwhile, the use of chemical inputs to agriculture, including pesticides marketed aggressively in East Africa, is polluting and depleting the natural environment.

This complex of challenges motivated Sylvia Kuria, a farmer in Kiambu County, to embrace agroecological methods on her farm. Sylvia saw the potential to run an organic, climate-resilient farm business. She also saw the opportunity to demonstrate the art of the possible to other local farmers. Her vision is catalyzing a local movement to embrace agroecological methods, with minimal chemicals and more efficient water management.

Making the Leap from Farm Plot to Policy

Sylvia’s approach to building local resilience involves direct skills training and field implementation work, as outlined below:

  • Training of farmers in agroecological methods, including demonstrations on Sylvia’s working farm. This includes agroforestry methods, which utilize specific tree species such as Sesbania sesban and Calliandra spp. to fix nitrogen, stabilize soils, and provide nutritious food for people and animal fodder.

  • Creation of kitchen gardens to provide nutritious food for families year-round. In the kitchen gardens, the women cultivate cereals and vegetables that do well in long and short rains. Sylvia and her group are promoting local indigenous foods, such as kumquats, indigenous avocadoes, and plums. These fruits are nutrient-dense and bolster local food security.

Sylvia’s approach also involves advocacy to secure a supportive public policy and investment environment for organic farming. Sylvia and other farmers have banded together as an informal advocacy group. They are not registered with a specific name but are drawn from three non-governmental organizations with a local presence: Trees of the Future, Biovision Africa Trust, and the Community Sustainable Agriculture Healthy Environmental Program. Together they have pursued the following:

  • Advocacy as a group of 100+ farmers for national policies to support climate-resilient, agroecological methods. This includes successful advocacy to phase out harmful chemical pesticides such as pymetrozine, chlorothalonil, diuron, and thiacloprid, which have been banned in Europe and elsewhere but were still in use in Kenya. (They were subsequently banned in Kenya in July 2023.)

Freshly grown peas.

  • Engagement with county government to pivot the county’s development plan towards support for organic, climate-resilient farming. As a result of the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Strategy, 2017-2026, each county now has climate-smart agriculture committees. These have become an important engagement arena for Sylvia and fellow organic farmers. They are seeking to get agroecological principles and activities prioritized in each county committee. The informal group of farmers organized in 2022 to define their top five advocacy asks for integration into the County Integrated Development Plan of Kiambu County. The farmers’ initiative was successful – their priority asks were adopted word for word as commitments in the County Plan, addressing:

    • provision of extension services and support, particularly in agroecology;

    • support for local markets, especially organic markets;

    • support for agroforestry (trees on farms to diversify production and economic risk, and enhance productivity);

    • support for rainwater harvesting and conservation; and

    • enhancement of quality, quantity, and access to organic inputs for local farmers.

Now the farmers’ group is engaged in seeking meaningful budgetary allocations from the county government to support this work.

  • Partnership with the county government on public infrastructure for more climate-resilient water management and farming. The county has budgeted for funding and constructing small dams to help manage scarce water resources. Sylvia’s group has initiated dialogues with county offi cials to explore how small dams could be installed in their area. These small dams will provide women in the villages with a sustained source of freshwater for their kitchen gardens, all year round.

How Challenges are Addressed

Mainstreaming agroecological principles and practices always requires an ongoing effort. With the turnover of administrative personnel, there is work to be done to retain institutional memory, maintain previous commitments to agroecology, and prevent backsliding. This is happening in two principal ways:

  • Representation on county and ward development committees. Sylvia and her colleagues endeavor to get agroecology champions appointed to the committees so that these committees remain well informed about, and committed to, agroecology. The Kiambu County Climate Change Act 2021 details the different committees that are mandated to “support climate resilience through development planning, management, implementation, regulation, and monitoring of adaptation and mitigation measures and actions.” These extend to ward level, the smallest unit of local government. On one of these smaller committees, the Ndeiya Ward Planning and Development Committee, an organic farmer represents the agroecological goals and outlook of the organic farmers’ group.

  • Calls for investment. Farmers are following up their earlier policy advocacy with entreaties to county government to invest in agroecology. Their three calls for investment are directly correlated with the previous policy priorities:

    • Extension services. A call for the county government to invest in employing extension officers and support the officers and the farmers with relevant training in agroecology.

    • Aggregation, value addition, and territorial markets. A call for national government to invest in local markets and develop value chain activities that would enable farmers to create and sell a value-added product for the region.

    • Agroforestry. A call to set up tree nurseries and ensure farmers in the locality can access the tree seedlings at affordable prices during the rainy seasons.

Having secured a strong policy achievement in Kiambu County, the group is now looking at adopting a similar approach in neighboring Nakuru County.

Kenyan vegetable farmer carrying a crate of spinach on her head.