Agro-ecological intensification for sustainable livelihoods in Western Kenya

By Josephat Mulindo

That the bio-physical environment in Western Kenya is wired for commercial agriculture is not in doubt. The climate is truly tropical with warm and wet conditions distributed uniformly in time and space. Farming is the main economic activity on the local landscape and the communities here have subsisted on farming for centuries.

The region however is in a big dilemma. It is rated very highly in poverty and general food insecurity. Unwise farming practices characterised by rampant cutting and burning of soil cover over time, has downgraded soil fertility with expected adverse consequences. Reduction in biodiversity has destroyed the agro-ecosystem immunity to the point where livestock and crop pests and diseases are rampant. This has pushed up the potential cost of keeping livestock and producing crops. Despite soil fertility and pests and diseases being major constraints to agricultural production in the region, fertilizers and pesticides are not widely used by smallholder farmers, due to lack of access to the inputs mostly because of high prices.

This presents an opportunity for the promotion of Agro-Ecological Intensification [AEI] in managing soil fertility and pests and diseases in crop and livestock-based smallholder farming systems. Agro-ecological intensification is a means of increasing agricultural outputs through integration of ecological principles into farm and system management. Given its roots in integrated pest management (IPM), integrated crop management (ICM) and agro-ecology, AEI has great potential for the creation of environmental conditions less favorable to pests and diseases but more favorable for vigorous and healthy crop growth and active growth of beneficial organisms.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions around the world through agro-ecological intensification (United Nations, 2010). This is significant, more so, in Western Kenya, where high human population and declining agricultural production and productivity are a mismatch. AEI practices are simple and easy to implement and act by reinforcing the "immunity" of the agro-ecosystem through a series of mechanisms.

Land size is not a constraining factor in implementing AEI options. The starting point is to go back to the drawing board and revisit the timeless indigenous crops and livestock that characterized the landscape ages ago. Through breeding by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research organization, International Centre for Insect Ecology and Physiology, International Livestock Research Institute, Kenya Forestry Research Institute and other research bodies, these crops and livestock have been improved under the local realities to produce superior adapted varieties and breeds respectively. These are the materials that should be promoted. As already indicated, their husbandry should strictly adopt AEI practices.

These practices include:

1. Crop Rotations. Temporal diversity incorporated into cropping systems, providing crop nutrients and breaking the life cycles of several insect pests, diseases, and weed life cycles.

2. Polycultures. Complex cropping systems in which two or more crop species are planted within sufficient spatial proximity to result in competition or complementation, thus enhancing yields.

3. Agroforestry Systems. An agricultural system where trees are grown together with annual crops and/or animals, resulting in enhanced complementary relations between components increasing multiple use of the agro-ecosystem.

4. Cover Crops. The use of pure or mixed stands of legumes or other annual plant species under fruit trees for the purpose of improving soil fertility, enhancing biological control of pests, and modifying the orchard microclimate.

5. Livestock integration in agro-ecosystems aids in achieving high biomass output and optimal recycling.

These practices should be recognized and valued by farmers. Therefore, the farmers should be empowered with knowledge and capacity to adapt the practices to their localities. County governments in the region should act fast to review and develop policies that will create favourable, functional and accessible markets to the producers. The markets should be structured in such a way that they value and pay producers for agro-ecosystem services and other non-conventional products.

This blog is a series that will look at various facets of agriculture in Western Kenya. It will cover the evolution and dynamics of the agricultural sector in the region over time. It will expound on what has gone wrong and what has gone right and relate them to the current scenario characterising farming in the region. At the end, the way forward will be generated for all stakeholders including policy makers to adopt and heal the agricultural sector in Western Kenya for good.

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Josephat Mulindo's picture
Josephat Mulindo is a research officer working with Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization at KALRO-Kakamega. He holds Masters of Science in Agricultural Economics. He has wide experience in adaptive research on-station and on-farm crop and livestock-based trials. He trains extension service providers on extension approaches and communication strategies. His opinions of are not necessarily those of KALRO.