A Quarter of the world’s 4.4 billion hectares (10.9 million acres) of cropland is degraded, often due to drying, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Just over a hectare and a half, or 4 acres, of that dried-out land have for years been located at Benedict-
pound) bags of produce from a 0.8-hectare (2-acre) plot, whether the rains are adequate or not.
According to the FAO, the world’s agricultural productivity increased by up to 200% by 2010, but
in Kenya, inadequate rains and degraded soils mean less than 20% of the area is suitable for
crops, says Dikson Kibata, a technical officer with the country’s Agriculture and Food Authority.
So, farmers like Manyi are learning how to make their degraded lands productive again after
joining DryDev, a project led by World Agroforestry (ICRAF) that has been working with farmers
in Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger since 2013.
Funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and humanitarian group World Vision,
DryDev has been training farmers in Africa to transition from subsistence farming and reliance
on charity to agriculture that is productive and environmentally friendly.
In Kenya, where about 80% of the terrain is dryland, the project is working with farmers to
encourage the growing of annual crops between or under trees, in a technique called
agroforestry, which provides enough cooling shade and moisture for the crops to take hold out of
the scorching sun. The project has also helped farmers to adopt rainwater harvesting for use on
“We have been supporting farmers with new farming technologies, tree planting using different
treatments, and pest control. Those who planted mangoes are already enjoying the harvests,”
says Mercy Musyoki, a community facilitator working with World Agroforestry.
Musyoki works with about 285 farmers in Makueni County, a parched region of southeastern
Kenya. One of these is Manyi, whose farm is dotted with a variety of trees and annual crops,
including mangoes, oranges, alfalfa (Medicago sativa, also called lucerne), Senna alexandrina,
neem (Azadirachta indica), Melia volkensii, and tamarind.
Tucked under rows of flowering mango trees is the stubble of recently harvested green grams
(mung beans), cowpeas, pigeon peas, pumpkin and sorghum.
In a separate section of the farm, Manyi intercrops Melia volkensii with brachiaria grass, a
livestock fodder that is fetching new revenue for his family. In another section, he has mixed
alfalfa and senna with vegetables like kale and perennial plants like yellow passion fruit, papaya
“I call this my family’s kitchen garden. The benefits of mango farming have enabled me to invest
in water harvesting, which I use to nourish my greens and water my livestock,” Manyi says with
a sweep of his hands across the farm.
It is easy to understand Manyi’s meaning. Before getting to his farm, a visitor will travel through
degraded by prolonged droughts,” Mutisya says.
Wildlife like dik-diks, rabbits, guineafowl, snakes and rare bird species have been disappearing
due to destruction of their rangeland habitats, and their exposure has led to increased game
hunting, says Kaloki Mutwota, who has been farming here for more than 20 years.
Kaloki Mutwota tends to one of his custard apple (Annona squamosa) trees. Image by David
Njagi for Mongabay.
In the 59 years that Mutwota has lived here, he says, he used to see these animals in
abundance. But starting around the middle of the last decade, few if any at all have been seen
roaming in Makueni.
“As the local life regeneration system declined, farms became barren, starving families
scrambled for relief food, and livestock became emaciated due to walking long distances in
search of water and pasture,” Mutwota says.
But all of this is changing as greener farms take root in the region, according to Dominic
Omondi, an agriculture officer in southeastern Kenya who has witnessed the transformation
under the DryDev program.
According to him, some of the technologies being used to boost dryland agroforestry in Kenya
include mulching, manure application, surface water harvesting, and the use of zai pits, bowlsized holes into which food crops are sown.
The zai pit technique breaks the hard surface pan, which has toughened up over time here due
to desertification. The pan prevents food crops from reaching nutrients below the surface and
also loses moisture quickly because water cannot seep into the ground.
“When I came here, most of the land was like the smooth surface of finished furniture,” Omondi
says, meaning that the land was so denuded that the surface hardened to the level where it
could not support plant life with weak root systems.
The situation is worsened by the varied topography of the region, a combination of flat, hilly, or
mini-plateau terrain, Omondi says. For instance, in Kalawa village where he lives, 20% of the
land was denuded, he says.
“This has changed within two years since dryland agroforestry began,” he says, adding that
whenever he visits farmers these days, he is rewarded with basketfuls of papayas, mangoes and
bananas, treats that he could not get before.
More than 7,000 farmers in southeastern Kenya have adopted dryland agroforestry, according to
Studies by World Agroforestry on dryland agroforestry indicate that the technology is not only
boosting food security for struggling farmers, it is also reducing environmental pollution, because
farmers are cutting down on the use of chemicals and fertilizers.
But ensuring tree establishment and survival in the drylands has been very challenging because
of the erratic and unreliable climate, as well as frequent droughts, says Leigh Ann Winowiecki, a
soil systems scientist at World Agroforestry.
“The program is helping get degraded land back to health by restoring soil health, through
conservation of water, reduced erosion and input of composted farmyard manure,” she says.
To assess how well adopting such agroecology practices works, a study that she co-authored
monitored 17,520 trees in Kenya in 2018 and found that average seedling survival in the regions
under research varied depending on the planted species and agroecological conditions at the
For instance, Kitui county had the highest average seedling survival at 53.4%, while Machakos
and Makueni counties had an average survival rate of 32.2% and 43.3%, respectively.
The addition of manure increased seedling survival by 12% but varied across counties, while
35% of seedlings survived when they were watered.
The study also reported that 7.8% of seedlings survived when farmers fenced their farms, while
the use of zai pits increased seedling survival.
Rael Syombua, another farmer from southeastern Kenya, adopted the use of zai pits and has
seen the technique cut her costs: before, she had to hire a plow to prepare her 1.2 hectares (3
acres) for planting.
Even after spending her savings on that, her maize yield would be low. But when she adopted
the zai pits, her average maize yield of less than three 90-kilo bags per season has doubled.
“When I used to hire a plow, I would be forced to follow it all day planting. But with zai pits, I
can manage my planting time without being harassed by anyone,” says the 59-year-old mother
Dryland agroforestry has brought with it another benefit to Syombua’s village. According to her,
strong winds that used to sweep through the village have been reduced in intensity due to the
increased tree cover.
These winds would carry with them harmful dust particles, which would lead to respiratory
Musyoki has also issued farmers with identity codes that use GPS navigation to trace the location
of individual farmers.
“It makes our work easier because we are able to know which crop is the best suited for the
climatic conditions of a particular site, and which trees can easily survive so that farmers can be
encouraged to plant them,” she says.
The UN General Assembly declared 2021 to 2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. On this
front, the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS) says the country has committed to restore degraded
lands with 5.5 million trees planted by 2030.
Much of this will be done through enrichment planting, which is an activity that involves
replanting trees on areas that have been cleared of tree cover, and also through agroforestry,
says Rose Akombo, the forest and climate change specialist at KFS.
Meanwhile, Manyi not only wants to double production at his farm in the next five years through
dryland agroforestry, he also wants to make a home for various animal species.
“My honey production has increased because more bees are now visiting my trees to collect
nectar. Some bird species are also coming to perch on my trees,” he says. “I feel like I have
given life to a disappearing generation.”
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