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Conservation agriculture has made Teresia Momanyi’s corn farm her refuge and "office"
Small-scale Kenyan farmer Teresia Momanyi introduces her “office and employer” - a neat, four-acre piece of land on which she practices conservation farming.
By Jackson Okata, bird story agency
It is a sunny and clear mid-morning, and Teresia Momanyi, dressed in a very “un-farmer-ish” outfit of a black and white striped skirt and matching black top and armed with a smartphone, is standing at the edge of her farm inspecting the latest corn crop.
“I always undertake an inspection of my farm every day because that is how I can monitor the progress,” she explained, beaming.
The 56-year-old mother of four, a professional accountant, said her life revolves around farming; she is a volunteer trainer of smart-farming techniques, besides managing her farm which is also a model for many other farmers, especially those in her area.
“My daily routine revolves around the farm, either preparing the farm for planting, applying manure or harvesting,” she said.
Ms. Teresia Momanyi’s in her maize plantation in Njoro, Nakuru, Kenya. Photo : Jackson Okata
The startlingly lush green plantation is well-manicured, a place she describes as her “office and employer".
“The farm is the source of happiness for me and my family.”
The farming journey started for Momanyi in 2010, when she was among a group of 20 women picked from her village for farmers’ training at the Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology in Nakuru, a central Kenyan town long associated with farming.
During the three-day event, they learned about conservation farming and when she got back home, she decided to give it a try.
The result was phenomenal, she explained – and two years later, she decided to quit her job in the local bank to concentrate on what she said had initially been a side hustle.
It’s not a decision she regrets.
“My husband was opposed to my idea of quitting my banking job. He asked me if I was going insane,” she said.
“But after only two years into it, my husband, who had dismissed my decision as insane, became my greatest supporter. He told me that I should have started farming soon after our marriage and not wasted time working in the bank,” she said, laughing.
Located 182 kilometres from Kenya’s capital city Nairobi, the green forest of maize on Momanyi’s farm stands out in a region that has suffered poor harvests because of erratic rains.
Maize planted under the conservation farming technique on Ms. Teresia Momanyi’s farm in Njoro, Nakuru, Kenya. Photo : Jackson Okata
Momanyi's fields are representative of thousands of smallholder farms across the region. In the early 1990s, Momanyi said, she would harvest at least 40 bags of maize per acre. But things changed in the mid-90s with her harvest dropping to a paltry 14 bags per acre, as regular rains failed and the soil became degraded of nutrients.
“Unreliable rainfall patterns over the past decades saw a decline in my harvest. Sometimes the rain is too much while at times it's too little to sustain the growth of my crops. Prolonged droughts and rains have become a norm,” said Momanyi.
This was a big dilemma for Momanyi and many other smallholder farmers across Kenya.
While for her, farming was not the primary source of income, for others, this was their livelihoods slipping out of their fingers as they looked on, helplessly.
Help came with conservation farming - a climate-smart farming method that involves minimum tillage of land.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) conservation farming “promotes minimum soil disturbance, maintenance of a permanent soil cover, and diversification of plant species”.
Those in the area who embraced it soon found their fortunes changed for the better. They are now guaranteed better harvests and income to cushion them from food and economic insecurity.
Conservation agriculture also enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface, which contributes to increased water and nutrient use efficiency, leading to improved and sustained crop production.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) says conservation farming is the future in areas suffering erratic rains.
It says not tilling saves the farmers the costs associated with mechanical tilling of land because the farmer only needs to clear weeds by slashing or using herbicides.
The cleared weeds are then used to mulch the land before, planting. This helps in conserving moisture within the soil
A farmer uses a ripper or a hoe, to dig planting holes or lines, then mixes fertiliser or manure with the seeds. Alternatively, a farmer can spread manure or fertiliser on the land after clearing the weeds before planting.
In her 10 years of conservation farming, Momanyi said she has not only been able to up her yields but also reduce farming costs.
“Conservation farming consumes less time compared to the conventional way of farming. It does not consume a lot of inputs, and this hugely cuts on costs,” she said.
From harvesting 14 bags of maize per acre, she is currently back to harvesting 36 bags from the same size of land.
“Before I embraced conservation farming, my budget on food was so high because I relied on market purchases due to poor farm harvests,” she said.
With the surplus harvests from her farm, Momanyi said, she can make enough money to cater for other family needs such as school fees.
“From the proceeds (of what) I make from selling maize, I have been able to take my two sons through to university,’’ she said.
Not far away, 46-year-old Gilbert Ngetich is also practising conservation agriculture. A trained teacher, he has been practising conservation farming for the past 7 years.
A plantation of beans under conservation farming on Gilbert Ngetich’s farm in Njoro, Nakuru county, Kenya. Photo : Jackson Okata
Ngetich observes that the climate-smart farming technique gives him yields even when the rains are not sufficient
“The good thing about this farming method is that it is not fully reliant on rainfall, and I always plant ahead of other farmers who fully rely on rain,” he said.
He adds that conservation farming is friendly to intercropping which allows him to plant fast-maturing crops such as beans and vegetables.
Ngetich agrees that conservation agriculture is less expensive than conventional agriculture.
“Currently, I only spend a quarter of what I used to spend on (a) one-acre piece of land, while practising conventional farming,'' he said.
“Unlike in the traditional tilling farming, this method consumes very limited inorganic fertilisers which reduces the cost of farming.”
Agro-climatologist Kinyanjui Koimbori said conservation farming helps in conserving water in the soil and this allows early planting for farmers, which in turn leads to better control of plant diseases and pests as well as better harvest
“Conservation farming increases soil organic matter while at the same time suppressing weeds and this works in favour of crops, ” he said.
“It is the best way to work towards food security for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.”
There's another important role that conservation agriculture can play.
“Conservation agriculture not only enhances soil fertility and quality, but it greatly enhances the amount of carbon stored in the soil," Koimbori pointed out.
When land is tilled, carbon stored in the soil is lost to the atmosphere.
“Conservation agriculture could help the world sequester up to 372 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year,” the agro-climatologist stated.
Clergyman and farmer, Andrew Rotich, 64, said the move to conservation farming was the best decision he has ever taken. He added that in the five years since he embraced the new farming method, his results have been far better.
He has been a farmer for 20 years.
“Initially, an acre would give me 18 bags but with conservation agriculture, the same acre gives me 30 bags,” he said.
He added that his farming costs have also dropped.
“In conventional farming ploughing an acre takes 6,000 (Kenyan) shillings (US$ 50) compared to 2,000 shillings I spend in conservation farming,” he said.
Rotich says he now supplies maize to the government-run National Cereals and Produce Board, something he couldn’t do 10 years back.
“With conservation farming, I have enough to feed my family and much to sell to the board,” he added.
Koimbori opines that the country's agriculture ministry should develop policies to extend the rollout of conservation farming across Kenya
“It has proven that it can work, and the results are visible. With proper policies, Kenya can beat the scourge of food insecurity and poverty among the lower-and middle-class folks,” he said.
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