How small-scale irrigation is transforming lives in 11 rural counties of Kenya

How small-scale irrigation is transforming lives in 11 rural counties of Kenya

By Henry Neondo, Gitonga Njeru and Joseph Abuje

Plans by the African Development Bank-supported Small Irrigation and Value Addition Project (SIVAP) to change lives of residents in eleven rural counties in Kenya have faced a number of challenges including Covid-19 that broke out in 2020.

However, the project, meant to boost agricultural performance, has successfully faced these challenges to benefit 520,000 people in 104,000 households, the majority being women and youth, supporting rural farmers and providing employment to many young people.

Implemented in Bomet, Kajiado, Nyeri, Tharaka Nithi, Meru, Muranga, Nyandarua, Machakos, Kitui, Makueni and Tana River counties, the SIVAP is currently involved in the construction of nine irrigation schemes as well as the rehabilitation of three others. This is being done through excavating grounds, laying down water pipes, opening up distribution networks to supply water to individual farms where farmers living within areas of completed phases could connect their water sprinklers. In addition, SIVAP is also boosting soil and water conservation efforts through the construction of water harvesting and storage structures.

An irrigation project by SIVAP

The Ministry of Agriculture has also vastly increased agricultural extension services. Farmers are making good money through value addition. Farmers like Godhana Ali Omar now say they are no longer in a hurry to sell their farm produce. Godhana has the ability to take his time and seek options to add value to his crop so that he sells it at a premium price.

“Since its conception in 2013, we have seen improved agricultural extension services through regular visits by agricultural extension workers,” said Lydia Kiprop,  resident of Chepalungu, Bomet County.

The major problems faced by farmers in Tana River and these eleven counties are a lack of farm inputs, high cost of fuel for mechanized farming and the dampened markets with lack of purchasing power by consumers.

According to Prof Hamad Boga, the outgoing Principal Secretary in the State Department of Crop Development and Agricultural Research, the USD $28 million project was almost derailed by Covid-19. The pandemic, he said, affected the agricultural sector by hindering the extension services and reducing access to markets. 

Today, though Covid has improved, drought, inaccessible fertilizer and high cost of fuel are still hitting the farmers hard. Price increases and supply chain challenges have been worsened by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

However, according to Harry Kimtai, the outgoing principal secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation in Kenya, the project is not only addressing inadequacies that have existed in the agricultural sector, but also these other barriers.

In Tana River County, the SIVAP is implementing feeder roads, water canals, markets and mechanized farming. This has seen hundreds of youths gain employment.

The project seeks to offer alternatives to rain-fed agriculture and boost food production, particularly in the context of climate change.

July-September 2022 estimates by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicate that about 24 percent of Kenya’s population living in arid and semi-arid areas such as Tana River, Kajiado, and Tharaka Nithi counties lack access to adequate food. 

Hence, in order to secure food production, there is a need to minimize dependence on rain-fed agriculture by utilizing water resources for irrigation under sustainable environmental management.

It is believed value addition will also help Kenya to cope with climate change.

Impacts of the small irrigation and value addition project in Tana River

Since its inception, the project has challenged county governments to develop infrastructure to support small-scale farming. According to Kimtai, the SIVAP has constructed water pads to irrigate crops in Tana River as well as the other 10 recipient counties. 

“Counties are building community water pans and wells emanating from rain or groundwater within easy reach of community settlements,” he added. 

In addition, said Kimtai, the project has supported many feeder roads to ensure that farm produce reaches the markets. Since 2019, the counties have constructed more than 69 kilometers of rural roads.

Kimtai says that groundwater is extracted through a well-drilled aquifer. A well is then filled through a pipe to access the groundwater. He adds that a water pump is used to bring water to the surface, which is then used sustainably to allow the underground aquifer to recharge.

The project also has a component where farmers are given capacity to store rainwater, assuring them of a yearlong provision of the precious commodity.

A masonry storage tank in Nyeri County

“As a farmer, [I] am now very happy as I am assured of consistent water supply.  It has not been easy, especially here in Chepalungu where we are on the leeward side and rainfall is not as much as the Kericho side. We now rely less on rain-fed agriculture,” said Kiprop. He added that the project has helped residents boost food production within a few months of its initiation.

With increased access to a consistent water supply, some communities in Tana River County have also started growing trees. Tree planting has also gained popularity as county officials encouraged farmers to plant trees to prevent soil erosion.

Some farmers in Bura region, for example, have started tree nurseries. Farmers are intercropping with trees such as Malakote (also known as llwana). “These woody plants work well with farmers who like it for its many benefits such as providing fodder for animals, its edible fruits and medicinal value,” said Kimtai. 

According to Bola Mlae, a farmer in Bura, the SIVAP project has also led to an increased number of extension officers and services. 

“Right now, we have extension officers within easy reach [who] are supportive when needed. This also has helped us increase our food production, storage and processing of the produce,” said Mlae. 

For example, Mlae said the farmers benefited from training on how to store their produce safely depending on the type of crop.

The Covid-19 effect on agriculture in Kenya

In March 2020, the government declared an emergency due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For the agriculture industry, Covid-19 hit markets and paralysed public transport and extension services due to government-announced preventive measures against its spread.

“During Covid, my family suffered from lack of money. We had a good harvest but there was no market to sell our produce. People avoided going to the market. Even if we dared to walk the 12 kilometers from our village to reach the market, we would stay there the whole day without selling a thing. It was really tough,” said Grano Nduru of Gamba village. 

Driven by fuel and other petroleum products, which are almost all imported, and a depreciating exchange rate (Central Bank of Kenya), Kenyans saw rising food and other commodity prices. A rise in expected inflation rates to 8.3 percent as of July 2022 did not help matters. 

Today, although the country has mainly overcome Covid-19, the long-term effects of the pandemic are still being felt, not just in Tana River County but across the country.

In early 2021, a year following COVID-19, Kenya was officially noted as a country in a recession, a fact that slowed production due to high cost of farm inputs. Although fears about the negative impact of inflation have subsided, food production still suffers and is made worse by the worst drought in the Horn of Africa in 70 years, according to the Joint Research Centre of the EU

Food prices are on a historically high-cost trajectory and have been worsened by the slow recovery from the pandemic, drought and inflation. Recent months have been tough for Kenyans amid the rising cost of fuel for mechanized farming.

Musina Ngatana, a farmer from the remote village of Mikameni, said getting transport to the urban markets is today easy. However, the problem is that there are no buyers in the markets, partly due to the prevailing poor and struggling economy. During Covid-19, he added, there were no vehicles and neither could he be allowed to travel because of his age. The elderly were not allowed to interact with the public as they were said to be susceptible to infection. 

“I suffered stress seeing my cabbages get spoiled as I neither received buyers nor could I manage to get transport to the markets. Normally, transporters would come to buy produce right here on my farm. Not since 2020. The government had locked us indoors and people were not willing to interact. I had to negotiate with my village sacco to reschedule the loans I took to invest on the farm,” said Ngatana. 

Today, however, “the cost of transport is high because of the rising costs of petrol and diesel,” he adds.

Tana River County

Tana River County, long identified with conflicts, insecurity and political violence, has equally been recording poorly on most socioeconomic indicators and has often been ranked among the poorest of Kenya’s 47 counties.  

The county has also been prone to drought. The area receives low to moderate rainfall below or about 60 millimeters per year.

Today, the county is among the 23 most-hit counties by drought, badly affecting pastoralists and farmers who had hoped to emerge stronger from the effect of Covid-19. 

Tana basin
Tana River Basin

Mohamed Hussein, a resident, said the county also suffered from a locust invasion during the 2019-2020 season that left farms destroyed. But his and his neighbours’ efforts to jumpstart the irrigated farms after the massive invasion of locusts are yet to bear fruit.

Hussein, who is the chair of the Abafodho group of farmers in Tana River County, said the locusts devoured their crops and worsened the situation.  

“To make matters worse, there has never been a commitment by the government to compensate them,” he said.

Post-Covid, Prof Boga said farmers face the challenge of increasing food production because available fertiliser is expensive and the fuel cost has shot up as a result of the government removing subsidies on the commodity.

Khadija Guyo, a resident, noted that most of the farmers in the area are faced with financial problems and cannot afford farm inputs including hiring farm hands. 

“We have hardly recovered from Covid-19 impacts. Then there was the general election and now, a new government with its policy which is against fuel subsidy. Things aren’t looking good for now,” said Guyo.

Small-scale irrigation project

Prof Boga said the  SIVAP project has four main components: enhanced irrigation infrastructures and water resources development; improved access to markets and strengthening value chains; institutional strengthening and capacity development; and project coordination and management.  

The direct and indirect beneficiaries include 104,000 farming households (54,000 direct beneficiaries and more than 50,000 indirect beneficiaries) making 520,000 persons – 58 percent of whom are women and youths.

More than 60 percent of the farmers in Tana River County are women, mostly over the age of 60 but often supported by the youths, according to data from the Tana River county government. However, the patrichical society denies them land rights to determine how to make use of the land.

The Tana River is 1,000 kilometers long, making it the longest river in Kenya. Its water catchment covers more than 100,000 square kilometers, about 20 percent of the country’s land mass.

ewaso nyiro
Flooded River Tana

The partnership between Arid Lands Development Focus (ALDEF) and the Tana River County government has seen some 25 farmers in parts of Tana River County each receive Shs 38,400 to help them recover from calamities that befell them in recent months.

According to one of the project managers at the National Irrigation Board, Johnson Muko, the government came up with plans to improve food security in the country and looked at the vast lower Tana Basin Delta and 10 other counties with similar features as potential areas.

The former cabinet secretary for agriculture, Peter Munya, said the government would focus on the poor counties and those that experience periodical droughts. 

The government of President William Ruto has strengthened these efforts further by shifting from supporting consumers to the production side. Tana River County, for example, was allocated a Sh949 million budget (USD $7.9 million) for agriculture and infrastructure development for the period 2018 to 2022. The funds have been released in phases.

This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Water and Development Partnership Programme.

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