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Replicating resilience


A project in eastern Kenya has broken the local cycle of hunger and aid dependence. The Kenya Red Cross Society is scaling up similar efforts, but can they be sustained and expanded to meet the needs of a hungry and desperate region?

WALKING THROUGH DENSE BANANA and mango groves, past neat rows of red pepper, onion and tomato plants, it is hard to believe this fertile, well-watered farm is in the heart of the Horn of Africa — home to devastating crop failures and cyclical droughts that have left millions of people hungry and dependent on food aid in recent years.

Here on this farm in north-eastern Kenya, images of parched landscapes and hungry faces seem a remote reality. Still, even in this verdant oasis, memories of hunger are never far from the minds of people such as former cattle herder Hassan Odh who now works on the farm.

“During the drought of 2004 we went hungry and were totally dependent on food aid,” he says. “During the severe drought in 2008, I lost my cattle again and knew I had to find another way of supporting my family.”

Odh is one of nearly 4,000 former pastoralists who have seen a spectacular reversal of fortune since they joined the Tana River Drought Recovery project — an initiative that the Kenya Red Cross Society set up in late 2009 to introduce sustainable farming to communities that could not sustain traditional livelihoods in drought-stricken north-east Kenya.

“To begin with, it was hard to convince pastoralists that they could become farmers,” says Mata Ramadhan, the local project officer. “They couldn’t conceive of settling in one area and growing crops.”

But today 1,335 hectares (3,300 acres) of bananas, mango, red peppers or capsicum, water melon, tomatoes, onions and pawpaw provide food for thousands of people and a regular income for the people working on 47 farms along the banks of the Tana River, which flows steadily from Mount Kenya to the Indian Ocean even in periods of drought.

From the farms, a steady stream of donkey carts are piled high with produce to sell in nearby Garissa, the capital of North Eastern province. Demand for their produce is strong and, last year, the farmers even produced a surplus at the peak of the drought that decimated the region

“Drought no longer worries us,” says Odh. “We know that it won’t bring hunger as we can always get water from the Tana and irrigate our crops, whether rain falls or not.”

A father of 33 children, five of them still at school, 89-year-old Odh now feels secure about his family’s future. He and the other farmers laugh at the suggestion they might miss their former lives as herders. “That life is over,” they chorus. “We now have tin-roofed houses with running water, television and our children are getting a college education so they can become doctors, teachers or even journalists.”

Pumping up

With funds from the Japanese and the Finnish Red Cross Society and other partners, the project has distributed tonnes of seeds and supplied numerous irrigation pumps to better use the water from the River Tana, Kenya’s largest waterway. If the Kenyan government provided enough funding to irrigate the fertile farm lands here, some say the Tana river basin has the potential to feed half the country.

The Kenya Red Cross Society would like to extend the project to ensure the food security of more pastoralists. Motivated by the opportunity of a decent livelihood as the failing rains continue to deplete their livestock, many herders are queuing up to join. It’s regrettable that the herders’ culture is changing, but in a context where so many pressures are making that way of life impossible, many herders and humanitarians say that adopting agriculture is a better option than aid reliance.

“Communities in the three divisions where we work are now food secure,” says Ramadhan, “but to really break the cycle of aid dependency in a district where 77 per cent live below the poverty line, we need to scale up and replicate.”

The Tana River Drought Relief project shows it is possible to empower communities to diversify their livelihoods and become food secure, breaking the endless cycle of relief aid distributed from one drought cycle to the next.

But it took donors until the severe drought of 2011 — the worst in the Horn in 60 years — to realize that they had to change tack and build the resilience of local communities if they were to prevent a recurrence of the humanitarian catastrophe.

According to Michael Mutuvu, disaster risk reduction manager for the Kenya Red Cross Society, “Last year’s drought was a red flag to donors, allowing us to make the strategic shift of focus we had sought for several years from relief to food security.”

The wholesale distribution of food aid and water had made communities dependent on relief, undermining their ability to support themselves. Locally controlled agriculture that enables communities to become food secure “ensures dignity, self-sufficiency and is much more cost effective,” adds Mutuvu.

This philosophy is reflected in the National Society’s strategic vision for 2011–2015, which does not even have a budget for food aid. On the other hand, its 20 new food security projects account for 50 per cent of programming, extending across the arid lands of northern Kenya and the drought-stricken south-east.

‘Climate-smart’ agriculture

But can this be reproduced elsewhere? In Yatta district in south-east Kenya, 80 per cent of the population relies on food aid in a region where farmers who are dependent on rain-fed agriculture have struggled with the impact of climate change.

According to John Mbalu, coordinator of the National Society’s local Machakos branch, the last good harvest of maize, the staple crop, was in 1997.

In October 2011, the Kenya Red Cross Society teamed up with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in an initiative to encourage farmers to diversify and move away from crops like maize and beans, which require a lot of water, to grow a new variety of drought-resistant cassava.

“It is a ‘climate-smart’ food security project where farmers benefit directly from scientific research straight out of the laboratory,” says Mbalu.

But its introduction has not been without challenges. Cassava is seen as a poor man’s crop and, if not handled correctly, can be poisonous. Farmers were initially sceptical of the value of growing a crop with such a low retail value. Once they hit upon the idea of grinding and milling the cassava to make flour, everything changed.

“Cassava is now like gold dust for us,” says David Muoka, the chairman of a local farmers group. A former teacher and banker, 62-year-old Muoka is a man with a vision. “The crop has great commercial potential not only as flour but it can also be turned into industrial starch and the peel used by the animal feed industry.”

And then, of course, there’s pizza. The Kenya Red Cross’s Machakos branch, which is providing a ready-made market for the cassava by buying the flour to make pizzas for its new income-generating pizza delivery service.

According to Mbalu, cassava can help farmers move beyond subsistence farming to generating a sustainable income whatever the rainfall. He is hopeful that by May 2013 they will have tripled the number of farmers planting cassava to 10,000 — a number that will make the venture commercially viable and ensure the farmers’ food security.

But the Kenya Red Cross estimates it would take 20,000 farmers and the construction of a dam for the project to make the whole district food secure and before it could be scaled up to neighbouring drought-stricken areas.

A drop in the ocean?

The Kenya Red Cross Society aims to ensure 100,000 people are food secure by 2015 — a ‘drop in the ocean’ in a country where 3.4 million people are considered at risk of hunger, according to Mutuvu. He points out that the bulk of the work has to be done by government. “We are just the catalysts for change at the community, business and corporate levels,” he says.

The projects also send a powerful message of local and regional self-reliance — a theme echoed throughout the Kenya Red Cross’s response to the Horn of Africa crisis. At the height of the drought last year, for example, the National Society worked with national telecom providers to launch the ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ campaign, which raised US$ 10 million in five weeks from the public and corporate sectors. The money went to fund both the immediate needs of the victims and the new food security projects.

“It showed that after years of dependency on international aid, we can find national solutions to national problems,” says Kenya Red Cross Secretary General Abbas Gullet. “It gave us back our national pride and dignity.”

As these projects move forward, there are still many challenges. For example, will the farms themselves become truly self-sustaining and not reliant on outside funders? Will other funders, or the Kenyan government, invest in replicating this model? The Kenyan government has set a target for every Kenyan to be food secure by 2030 — a target that Gullet considers a tall order but viable.

“Kenya was a net food exporter 25 years ago,” he says. “Today it is a net food importer and aid dependent, which shouldn’t be the case. The ministries of agriculture, water, education and health have to change and shift their priorities and invest in manufacturing, science, technology and education.”

By Claire Doole
Claire Doole is a freelance journalist based in Geneva, Switzerland.

A farmer at the Kenya Red Cross Tana River Drought Recovery Project shows the fruits of his labours. Photo: ©Claire Doole/IFRC









“Kenya was a net food exporter 25 years ago. Today it is a net food importer and aid dependent, which shouldn’t be the case.”
Abbas Gullet
, secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross Society.







A farmer with a handful of bell peppers. Photo: ©Claire Doole/IFRC









“Cassava is now like gold dust for us. The crop has great commercial potential not only as flour but it can be turned into industrial starch and the peel used by the animal feed industry.”
David Muoka
, chairman of a local farmers group in Yatta district.









Digging for gold in Kenya’s Yatta district. Long thought of as undesirable by many Kenyans, cassava is being grown by the Kenya Red Cross to make flour, which some farmers smilingly call ‘gold dust’.
Photo: ©Claire Doole/IFRC










Web extra!

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into ‘gold dust’
How a resilient and drought-resistant root is providing a new cash crop.




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