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