Kenya is among countries rolling out transformatory soil conservation and fertility exercises following years of degradation and nutrient mining that has taken a toll on yields as the World marks 2015 as the United Nations international year of soils.
According to the UN, soils are crucial, not just for crops production but also for the environment since they assist in carbon cycle and build resilience in controlling floods.
But at no time according to the body, has soil meant so important in the history of mankind than now when demand for food has reached unprecedented highs and the number of world hungry population continues to soar. Currently the number stands at 805 million people.
Human activities have largely been blamed for dwindling potency of the soils. In Kenya years of over cultivation and mining of nutrient in the top soil has been responsible for removing fertility in the soils. Soil erosion has further exacerbated the situation washing away major nutrients. Over application of chemicals like herbicides to kill weeds has led to poor and tired soils which have made Kenyan soils some of the most tired in Sub Saharan Africa according to Food and Agriculture Organization. The farming practices that over exploit soil nutrients without replacing them have been cited as key to halving crop yields for most of the smallholder farmers in Kenya.
This has come at a time when population is soaring and demand for food is at an all time high. Western Kenya has been one of the severely affected areas in degraded farms and sick soils. A hectare there would once produce 6 tonnes of maize, but with the degradation, the same farm produces 0.5 tonnes. But Western Kenya is also leading the country in the journey towards healing its soil.
Through an innovative project dubbed Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) and with assistance from scientists from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), farmers are now applying lime to their farms in order to boost soil fertility and reduce acidity while embracing farming techniques like crop rotation to give time for the soils to relax and regenerate its nutrients. Through the project average maize yields by individual farmers has increased by 220 per cent according to a study dubbed ‘improving Smallholder Maize Productivity in Western Kenya through Integrated Soil Fertility Management’.
The same programme has advocated and encouraged adoption of intercropping soils with legumes like cowpea and nuts with ordinary crops. The legumes have been identified as one of the key and fastest way to regenerate nutrients into the soils through naturally adding nitrogen into the soil and have been responsible for tripling yields in the area.
Microfinance institutions like F3 Lite on the other hand are giving farmers loans and pegging the credit worthiness and interest on repayment on farm management practices like soil conservation. This, the microfinance does through monthly trainings on basic farm practices that increases soil fertility and ultimately yields.
The country at a larger scale has also introduced key policies that have directly touched on improving soil fertility. The roll out of various soil testing ventures by institutions like the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization among others have created awareness among smallholder farmers on the timely assessment of their soil to encourage timely interventions.
This has inspired even more proactive ventures like mobile testing kits with private players like ARM pitching tent near farmers’ farms to test their soils and offer expertise on how to maintain fertility or boost it. This has served to incentivize more farmers who found it hard to take samples to KARLO labs with the mobile soil testing kits also being pocket friendly to farmers.