Behind the over 500 grafted mangoes, 800 orange trees, 150 tangerine trees and tens of pawpaw trees all producing over Sh1million is the make or break farm story on Judith Mwikali Musau who has learned how to co-exist with a drier climate – by growing high-value, drought-resistant fruit.
The fruit trees are all intercropped with legumes like pigeon peas and cowpeas. “I harvest the fruits in different seasons. Usually mangoes are harvested between November and March, oranges and tangerines from May to August, while pawpaw fruits are harvested all round the year,” said Musau.
The different harvest periods ensure she has some income each season, she said. On average, she harvests 40 sacks of oranges each season, which she can sell for Sh1700 a sack to a wholesale dealer. This earns her Sh70,000 per harvest.
“This, supplemented with proceeds from other crops, enables me to feed my family, pay school fees for my four children and provide them with necessary basic needs,” she said. Earlier, she depended entirely on her husband Ambrose Musau Wambua, who works at a hotel in Mombasa.
“Before I started the farming project, we used to spend all his salary on food, yet we still had to go for relief food because it was not enough. But now he can easily make savings of the little he earns,” she said.
Musau is one of thousands of women living in the Kenya’s drought-stricken Eastern Province who are finding ways to build resilience to the country’s increasingly tough climatic conditions, which have recently included a prolonged drought followed by torrential rains and flooding.
Climate change is bringing more extreme weather conditions in many parts of Africa, and farmers are struggling to find ways to adapt to changing planting seasons and water availability, using everything from better forecasting and innovative crop insurance to more resilient crops designed to hold up through hard times.
Kenya’s Eastern Province, commonly referred to as Ukambani, is characterised by long drought seasons that sometimes last for more than three years. This regularly results in famine, forcing families to survive on food relief from the government, donations from well wishers and wild herbs and fruits.
But through womens’ organisations and self help groups, most of the residents are now working towards improving their food security regardless of the climatic conditions.
Musau is a member of the Mbiuni Farmers Association, which brings together 750 peasant farmers from villages within Mbiuni area.
“The 750 farmers were all members of self help groups, originally meant to support each other through fund raising whenever there were problems such as burials. But after sometime, we held a meeting and resorted to use the same spirit of unity to fight hunger,” said Benedeta Kaluki Muoki, the association’s chair.
Altogether, 16 self help groups came together to form the Mbiuni Farmers Association, she said. “We began by planting maize during the 2004 rainy season, which helped us fund raise some money, register the association, and open an account,” Muoki said.
The farmers, using their initial savings, then began planting drought resistant trees and other crops on their small pieces of land. The effort has helped them avoid hunger for the past five years, even as other community members depended on relief food.
“The toughest season was last year,” with a long drought in Kenya entering its third year, she said. “But none of our members went for the relief food,” Muoki said. To sustain the association, the group has made fund raising a routine activity, with member donations put into a savings scheme called ‘Solidarity for Development’.
“For the very first time we asked every member to raise Sh500, through which we started a community based loan scheme,” Musau said.
The contributions are considered as personal shares, and any member of the association can borrow from the fund, primarily to support their farming activities. Farmers are also allowed to contribute more money and buy more shares in the association.
Since 2007, the savings fund has accumulated over Sh28million, most of which is in circulation among the association members. “Every farmer is allowed to borrow three times her shares, and must give a farm-based asset for security. This could include orange trees, livestock animals, (or) farm machinery among others,” said Musau, the association’s treasurer.
By creating their own microfinance fund, group members also avoid paying interest fees to anyone outside the group. “We discourage farmers from borrowing from microfinance institutions or banks. Our reasoning is that when they borrow from their own association, the interest the money accrues turns out to benefit them through annual dividends,” Musau said.
The association also works in collaboration with other like-minded organizations, including the African Institute for Economic and Social Development.
“We help them identify suitable crops that can survive tough climatic conditions and offer them appropriate technology that helps improve the yields,” said Jane Biashara, a programme facilitator with the institute.
The institute also sponsors field visits and other opportunities for farmers to exchange ideas and learn from experts. “We have learned that the best way of handling communities living in such conditions is by allowing them identify what they want, instead of imposing new ideas on them, however good the ideas could be,” Biashara said.