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LETTERS: Rain-fed agriculture is losing shine in Kenya

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Letters

Harvesting wheat.
Harvesting wheat. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Bernard Baruch, a renowned American philanthropist and senior advisor to 32nd President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, would assert that: “Agriculture is the greatest and fundamentally the most important of our industries. The cities are but the branches of the tree of national life, the roots of which go deep into the land. We all flourish or decline with the farmer.”

Worldwide, more than 80 percent of the cropped area depends on rainfall alone.

Rain-fed agriculture is practised in almost all hydro-climatic zones. However, in many dry sub-humid regions and arid regions, yields tend to be relatively low. With highly variable rainfall, long dry seasons, recurrent droughts and dry spells as well as floods, climate change has become a key constraint for an agricultural production system.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 90 percent of the cropland is rain-fed, erratic and sparse rainfall often combines with arid conditions, high temperatures, and shallow soils with poor nutrient status to provide extremely uncertain conditions for agriculture.

Evident from the increase in the frequency of extreme climatological events, climate change has become unequivocal, impacting rainfall patterns and consequently agricultural, and food systems.

That climate is changing, is no longer a distant dream derived from predictive scenarios. It is a reality. Kenya is already experiencing unpredictable weather, unreliable and insufficient rains, higher than normal temperatures and long drought periods. Critical resources such as water are becoming scarce. As a country dependent on rain-fed agriculture, climate change poses a significant challenge to food security. C limate change will disproportionately hurt the poor mostly smallholder subsistence farmers making it difficult for the country to eliminate poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

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At the time when Kenya is facing climate change challenges, simultaneously the population is growing steadily and it is projected to reach 94 million by 2050 and more than 160 million by 2100.

For most of the recent past, the economy has been growing at a healthy and respectable rate of about five percent per year. There is no doubt that the trend of economic growth may slow down at a time when the country has to feed more people.

With the unveiling of the government’s areas of focus for the next five years, christened the Big Four agenda, agriculture has been identified as a key driver to spur economic growth.

Evidence from elsewhere in the world shows that no nation or region developed a modern and prosperous economy without first establishing a successful agricultural sector.

This holds true for the regions of America and Europe 100 years ago and in the regions of Asia and Latin America in more recent years. In this regard, to achieve economic growth and shared prosperity, a nation needs to first feed itself and therefore the inclusion of food and nutrition security to the government priority list is a step in the right direction. That agriculture needs to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change is an imperative, not a choice.

Agriculture in Kenya must become more resilient to climate change. It should become more productive, stable and sustainable. Part of the solution lies in technology including irrigation and innovative water conservation, use of drought and diseases resistant crop varieties, planned management of land including pastures, conservation of land and forests particularly water catchment areas, conservation of soil moisture, production of high-value crops that have ready markets and can fetch better prices.

Most of these ideas and technological practices are already available off the shelf. Kenya does not need to reinvent the wheel but rather to apply them effectively and widely.

The scale is very important if we have to reverse or properly adapt to the challenges of climate change in agriculture. Subsistence farmers in Kenya are known for their little enthusiasm in adapting to new circumstances and in taking up of technologies until they are convinced that the proposed change carries less risk and is profitable.

There is, therefore, need for concerted effort to develop educational and advocacy programmes to educate farmers on climate change, its impact and adaptation options.

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