Agroforestry helps farmers reduce vulnerability to climate change
Kathiani village in Mbooni, Makueni County has always been a farming village. Here, farmers have been both subsistence and commercially oriented, operating on small-scale and large-scale farming, and growing a wide variety of crops, from cereals to vegetables and cash crops.
“For ages, we have relied on rainfed agriculture, but since we started experiencing limited rains about a decade ago, most farmers have abandoned their unproductive farms,” Benedict Manyi, a local farmer says.
He says evidence of changing weather and land degradation is evident as parched rangelands can be seen as you walk around the village.
Land degradation is a major challenge affecting not only Makueni County farmers but farmers from all over the world.
Available data shows that worldwide, more than two billion hectares (4.9 billion acres) of once productive land are now degraded, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
In Kenya alone, land degradation has cost the country about 5.1 million hectares (12.6 million acres) of its arable land.
Manyi says, to save their land, farmers in the county have decided to change the narrative by embracing agroforestry. Dr Edward Kibet Mengich, Principal Research Scientist (Agroforester and Tree eco-physiologist) at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) defines agroforestry as the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.
Worldwide, agroforestry is practised by more than 1.2 billion people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).
Restore soil health
It is an important climate-smart agriculture approach as it restores degraded soil and boosts food production.
The practice also increases soil organic matter and available nutrients, improving the fertility of soils. Better soils mean better harvests and better harvests of staple foods mean that families are less likely to go hungry.
Trees also provide erosion control, improve water infiltration, provide land cover and shade and act as windbreaks.
“Agroforestry systems have three to four times more biomass than traditional treeless cropping systems. In Africa, this practice constitutes the third largest carbon sink after primary forests and long-term fallows. Because of the above, the practice is helping to get degraded land back to health by restoring soil health, through conservation of water, and reduced soil erosion,” he says.
Fallow is a farming technique in which arable land is left without sowing for one or more vegetative cycles. The goal of fallowing is to allow the land to recover and store organic matter while retaining moisture and disrupting pest life cycles and soil-borne pathogens by temporarily removing their hosts.
A recent study by Science Direct shows that tree densities in farming landscapes range from low cover of about five per cent in Sahel Region to more than 45 per cent in humid tropical zones where cocoa, coffee, and palm oil agroforestry systems prevail.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 15 per cent of farms have tree cover of at least 30 per cent.
“We were taught about this practice by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) under their Drylands Development (DryDev)Programme where we were trained on how to transition from subsistence farming and reliance on charity to agriculture that is productive and environmentally friendly. Over the years, more than 23, 00 households in Makueni have been relying on relief food,” Manyi says.
Manyi says since he started practising agroforestry, the productivity of his farm has improved. This was evident during our recent visit to his farm. Though the area received rainfall that couldn’t sustain most of the farms, Manyi’s farm was abundant with healthy-looking cowpeas, mangoes, pawpaws, leafy vegetables, passion fruit, and custard apples. Other trees that could be seen on his farm were Neem, popularly known as Muarubaini, Melia volkensii known as Mukau, and Moringa oleifera among others.
“I have two acres under agroforestry and three acres under grass production. I incorporated grass production to ensure that no land has been left bare as it was initially. From the said acreage, now I get surplus, value, and more. I harvest not less than five tonnes of cowpeas from the two acres whether the rains are adequate or not,” Manyi says.
“For the grass (brachiaria grass), I am getting enough for my livestock and the surplus has been fetching new revenue for my family,” he adds.
Miriam Mutuku, whose farm is located about two kilometres from Manyi’s, is another beneficiary of this project. She joined the project in 2019 when her four acres piece of land could barely sustain a blade of grass. She was on the verge of giving up on her farm when ICRAF approached her and explained their project.
“Before I joined the project, I was harvesting utmost two bags of maize, today I harvested enough maize and other food crops to last my family for a season even though the acreage has reduced to one and a half acres,” Mutuku says.
“I also have increased off-farm incomes and better environmental conditions on my farm,” he adds.
Mutuku is proud that she no longer has to walk for long distances to collect firewood as she did before joining the project. Now, with trees on her farm, she only needs to prune them to get the firewood she needs. Her farm currently hosts different types of food crops, fruits, commercial trees, and brachiaria grams.
“For a start, I was given tree seedlings for free by ICRAF. This was a great boost for me. Though survival of the seedlings was a bit challenging, because of the erratic and unreliable rains, I kept replanting more seedlings every time I lost a seedling.
My efforts have borne fruit since my farm is now full of different trees,” she says.
Manyi and Mutuku are not the only farmers on the front lines of climate change and land degradation. In Kenya, this is the main challenge facing most small-holder farmers. Without action, the problem o food insecurity will not come to an end anytime soon.
According to the KenyaFood Security Steering Group (KFSSG) as of February 2022, there were around 3.1million food-insecure people in pastoral and marginal agricultural areas, a 48 per cent increase since August 2021.
“Climate change and land degradation, resulting from human-induced pressure on ecosystems are threatening crop productivity, food and feed supply, and food security in Kenya. Farmers continue to experience low production, because of the declining soil fertility,” Kibet explains.
“Farmers, especially those with limited resource endowment need to embrace low-cost approaches, such as agroforestry, which have proven to replenish soil fertility,” he adds.
However, despite the benefits of this practice, Kibet notes that successful agroforestry practices depend on the ability of the trees and shrubs to survive and grow well enough to provide the benefits sought. In a changing climate, agroforestry species must be able to survive and grow under both current and future climatic conditions. If species that are currently used cannot adapt to future climate, the risk is high that the desired functional lifespan of the agroforestry practice will not be achieved.
Dr Kibet says not any tree can be planted under this practice. Agroforestrytrees must match the environmental conditions and the user preferences at the planting sites. The most appropriate trees for agroforestry are those that are multipurpose.
Multipurpose trees are trees and shrubs, which are deliberately kept and managed for more than one preferred use, product, and service.
Exploit potential of the trees
Tree species can be multi-purposed in two ways that are a single tree can yield more than one product or service or trees of the same species, when managed differently, can yield different products or services.
Products and services may include wood fuel, timber, fibre, fodder, food, medicine, soil conservation, and shade, among others.
“MultipurposeTrees (MPTs) are the most distinctive components of agroforestry, and the success of agroforestry as a viable land use option depends on exploiting the potential of these multipurpose trees,” Kibet added.
How does agroforestry reduce farmers vulnerability to climate change? Kibet reveals that agroforestry also helps to reduce soil erosion, diversify and increase agricultural productivity, enhance farmer livelihoods from increased income generation, reduce hunger and poverty, increase biodiversity, enhance aesthetic value, leads to less use of chemical fertilisers, women’s empowerment, soil regeneration, enhanced farm resilience, improved and diversified diets, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation, among others.
However, Dr Kibet says the agroforestry practice in Kenya faces challenges as a result of a lack of coordination between sectors since agroforestry is an intervention affecting multiple sectors. Other challenges are lack of capital, lack of technical skills, poor access to credit, lack of access to markets and quality seeds, limited use of machinery due to the presence of trees on farms, and land tenure. Since tree growing is a long-term investment, most land users are usually not willing to invest in tree growing where the security of land tenure is not assured.
Dr Kibet says there is a need for the establishment of an institution that will specifically enhance the coordination of agroforestry at the national level. Where access to monetary resources is a challenge, this could be improved by supporting innovative financial models that address the long return on
investment of many practices, such as agroforestry.
“It can also be improved by providing better systems for credit, either through informal village savings and loan groups or by more formal set-ups,” Kibet added.
Since unclear land and tree tenure rights prevent farmers from investing time and money in practices with a long return on investment, such as agroforestry, Dr Kibet says that there is a need to also ensure that such rights are secured to enable farmers to invest their energy and resources without fear of incurring losses due to such unclear rights.
Kibet adds that access to markets by agroforestry practitioners maybe improved by availing market information to a wider clientele, such as women and youths who may not have been considered previously.
Access to appropriate germplasm (seeds, seedlings) and farm inputs should also be enhanced. The same applies to access to knowledge, education, and information through training and capacity-building of communities.
Dominic Omondi, an agriculture officer in Southeastern Kenya says the shift to agroforestry has had so many benefits to those who have adopted it.
In that region, for example, more than 7,000 farmers now have enough to eat and a surplus to sell.
“Food and nutritional security are major motivating factors for agroforestry adoption by farmers. I would like to urge all farmers, especially those from arid and semi-arid areas to adopt this practice since this is the only way as a country we will become food secure,” Omondi says.\
Kibet says that due to the complexity of agroforestry as an integrated farming system, the enormous amounts of resources required to cause meaningful change through this practice, and the effect of environmental factors exacerbated by the emerging challenges related to climate change, the creation of largescale change by this practice does not sound feasible.
“Success will largely depend on full scientific input for the choices and management of trees and the intense and long-term involvement of communities. It will also require the development of a range of site-specific agroforestry interventions, founded on research and farmer interaction, and working with development,” Kibet concluded.
This story has been produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN).