Simple, diverse farming techniques help mother of five in Kenya curb hunger and earn an income.
VILLAGE OF MUYAFWA, Kenya – Much of Janet Wamalwa’s one-acre farm plot lay bare and difficult to cultivate. Like many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, her land in Muyafwa, a village in western Kenya, was plagued by soil erosion and low productivity. And for a subsistence farmer like 32-year-old Janet, when her crops don’t grow, her family doesn’t eat. The mother of five said that they lived on one meal a day during the dry season.
But no more.
Today, Janet’s crops are thriving and her family is eating better because of several sustainable farming techniques she implemented with the help of an international nongovernmental organization, World Neighbors, and Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture.
Janet is one of several women farmers who experts from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) met with to learn more about farming methods that work best for them. Janet’s approach is just one example of how small-scale farmers in Africa – most of whom are women – can use a diversity of simple practices to stave off hunger, earn an income and, ultimately, improve their lives.
“Women like Janet are central to alleviating hunger in rural communities where most of the world’s poor and food insecure people live,” said Rekha Mehra, ICRW’s director for economic development. “They depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihoods, and small-scale, affordable solutions that increase their productivity can go a long way in improving the quality of life of their entire household.”
ICRW experts plan to take what they learned from Janet and other women during the ICRW-sponsored workshop and share it with Kenyan and U.S. policymakers and practitioners as they develop strategies to boost agricultural productivity.
"Farmers like Janet also can inspire and teach other farmers in similar circumstances how to adopt practical skills and techniques – this is something they all discovered during the workshop," Mehra said.
So what exactly did Janet do to increase her yields and curb her family’s hunger?
In part, she learned to use her land more efficiently by dividing it into several plots to plant a variety of crops. She grows bananas, beans, cassava, groundnuts, kale, maize, tomatoes and sorghum – all of which she uses to feed her family and sell at local markets. Janet also owns dairy goats, whose milk helps nourish her children and whose manure helps create organic fertilizer.
By planting a combination of compatible crops – a process known as “intercropping” – and using the organic fertilizer, Janet’s soil fertility is much richer. The proof is in her yields: In the past, Janet said she harvested some 100 to 200 pounds (45 to 90 kilograms) of maize per season; now she produces about 595 to nearly 1,000 pounds (270 to 450 kilograms).
Meanwhile, she also developed ways to store water at her home, which is located in an area where rainfall is unpredictable and excessive drought is common. She did this by fashioning a roof gutter to collect and direct rainwater into a 100-liter tank. Now, even in the dry season, Janet said she has water that can last up to four days.
Janet also took advantage of the terrain where her farm is located. Although her village does not have electricity or irrigated water, her farm sits on a slight downhill slope. She used the slanted ground to her benefit by digging channels between her plots. These channels collect water and nutrient runoff from the farms above hers, helping to nourish her crops.
The small, relatively cost efficient farming techniques Janet adopted are representative of solutions small-scale farmers in Africa and elsewhere can practice to alleviate hunger – and poverty.
And for Janet, the benefits have been life-changing. Now, she said her children’s overall nutrition is better, in part because the variety of crops she grows allows her to provide a healthy mix of food for her family year-round. Meanwhile, the extra income Janet earns from selling products in local markets means she can pay her children’s school fees. In the past, when she couldn’t make ends meet, the first cost-savings remedy was to pull the children from their studies.
Now, Janet can afford to steadily keep them in school.
ICRW Program Associate Charles Ashbaugh contributed to this report.