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Kenya Project Saves Farm Futures

By David Snyder

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Like most rural African women, Joyce Wambua is up with the sunrise. The morning's work is hard but familiar, and Joyce is up to the task. For many in Kenya today, however, such labor is fading to memory as drought withers the crops they used to tend and dries the water holes they used to frequent.

Here on Joyce's farm in the village of Kayalambi in Kenya's drought-stricken Kathonzweni District, the story is different. Across her sloping fields, green leaves stand in stark contrast to the dusty brown landscape of the region, and lines of earth crisscross the hilly farmland. In them lies the secret of Joyce's success.

Joyce Wambua prepares maize to be ground into flour

Joyce Wambua prepares maize to be ground into flour on her farm in southern Kenya. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"I improved the quality of my terraces. Now I'm assured of a crop harvest even if the rains are bad," Joyce says. "My crop may be smaller, but I won't have a total crop failure."

Joyce's secret is the Arid and Marginal Lands Recovery Consortium, or ARC, which has brought dramatic results to farms in some of Kenya's hardest hit regions. As one of five nongovernmental organizations involved in the consortium, Catholic Relief Services has been working in the Kathonzweni District to protect the lives and livelihoods of the most impoverished farmers.

Projects include tree planting and small-scale irrigation, livestock improvement and soil-conserving earthen terraces designed to trap rainwater on farm fields. By providing seed vouchers and farm improvement techniques, and using drought-resistant crops like cow and pigeon peas, CRS is making it possible for people like Joyce to greatly increase the yield of their farms.

"I learned about planting one crop per area, and through that I have seen fewer pests," Joyce says. "I also learned about planting improved varieties of pigeon pea seed that have more yield and…you can harvest twice per year."

Joyce Wambua was able to harvest seeds for planting next year

Despite serious drought, Joyce Wambua was able to harvest seeds this year for planting next season. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

The drought gripping much of Kenya has quickly put to the test the lessons of the ARC program, which was launched in 2009. Although she was able to harvest at least enough of each crop to provide her seed for next year, Joyce still saw many of her plants whither. The failure of the early rains in Kenya has stressed most ARC project areas, slashing harvest yields and driving up food prices at a time when many can barely feed their families.

"Now I have to go to the market to buy food because I cannot grow enough," Joyce says. "The prices are much higher now. Last year at this time, maize was costing .21 cents per kilogram [a little more than 2 pounds]. Now it's costing .58 cents per kilogram."

Despite the hardship, Joyce still counts herself among the lucky ones. On nearby farms, many community members who did not participate in the project lost all of their crops to the drought. Across Kenya, some 3.5 million people are caught up in the drought, and many are depending on food aid just to survive. Were it not for ARC, Joyce says, she could well have been in that position herself.

"If I'd planted the traditional variety of pigeon pea, I wouldn't have gotten anything," Joyce says. "With the improved variety, at least I harvested something so I will have seed for next season."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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