Visitors driving along the all-weather Makindu-Athi Kiaoni road, which links Makueni and Kitui counties, always look in wonder at the village’s leafy green crops in the sun-baked region.
This is especially true in Kilongoni village in the leeward side of Kilema Hill, where like an oasis in a desert, Musyoka Kivungi’s farm stands out.
The farmer grows fruits and vegetables, irrigating the crops using surface runoff that he usually collects into a sprawling pond in his homestead whenever it rains.
Ukambani receives between 500 and 800 mm of rainfall annually, according to the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA).
Seeds of Gold finds the senior Makueni county government official inspecting an onion crop that was ready for harvesting.
“Our resolve was to make this place habitable. This has been attained and surpassed since we now grow cabbages, sukuma wiki, okra, tomatoes and onions all-year round.” Kivungi, the chief officer at the county’s department of devolution, tells Seeds of Gold.
Kivungi’s work on the 12-acre farm, which is always a beehive of activity, entails closely supervising workers, who at any one point are either preparing seedbeds, installing nurseries, translocating seedlings, weeding various plots or harvesting produce.
On average, he harvests 25 t of onions per acre, making a tidy sum from each harvest as a kilo goes for up to Sh80, a feat which he credits on the readily available water, suitable soils and hard work.
Traders from Nairobi flock to his farm for the commodity, with the remainder being bought by small traders who deal in vegetables.
Kivungi taps surface runoff from a road that passes near his farm, using a rudimentary canal that directs the water into the pond on his farm. The water passes through three small ‘check dams’ to prevent the silting of the main dam.
To ensure that the pond loses as little water as possible, it is designed deep and covered with an extensive net to minimise water loss through evaporation.
“My pond is 30 m by 25 m and is 14-feet-deep,” he says, noting the water harvesting technology is called farm pond.
Sell their produce to European markets
From the pond he pumps the water through a pipe to the several plots hosting different crops, including okra, fruits and vegetables, throughout out the year. The crops are irrigated using a drip system.
The rainwater harvesting bug bit Kivungi in 2014, after the county government took hundreds of farmers and government officials on a benchmarking mission at Bishop Titus Masika’s model farm in Machakos.
The cleric, who is credited for transforming dozens of homesteads in the semi-arid Yatta in Machakos County into food secure zones through an aggressive rainwater harvesting campaign, embarked on farming after he retired as a secondary school principal.
He has been enlisted in a rainwater harvesting campaign that brings together Makueni County Government, national government agencies such as Micro Enterprises Support Programme Trust (MeSPT), NDMA, micro-finance institutions and multiple non-governmental organisations.
Wanza Muindi is another farmer who has adopted the water-harvesting technology.
She taps water from Kwa Ikombi stream, which snakes through the village overlooking Mbooni Hills, and uses it to grow French beans and bananas throughout the year.
Muindi is a teacher at Muthwani Pre-school by day and a farmer by night, owning a pond on her farm like dozens of her neighbours.
She used Sh35,000 to sink the pond in 2014, while the dam liner was provided for free by MeSPT in a programme to promote agribusiness at the household level.
The farmers grow French beans spawning a rich community of locals who sell their produce to European markets through agents.
“We prefer growing French beans during the dry spell because they fetch higher prices around that time since the supply is always at its lowest,” Muindi tells Seeds of Gold on her farm.
She also has sunken plots sitting on polythene sheets with flourishing arrowroots underscoring the commitment of the mother of three to tap into the technology to wade through the vagaries of climate change.
To grow arrowroots, work on the plots starts with digging a trench of up to one-foot-deep, to the size of the available polythene sheet in length and width, and separating the top soil from the subsoil.
She then mixes the top soil with manure and returns the mixture in the trench leaving a depression of about 10 cm, then waters to wet the mixture.
The suckers are then planted in the sunken plots in a spacing of 30 cm by 30 cm with the plant inserted up to 20 cm into the new seedbed.
Water retention technologies
The teacher waters the crops, at most, once in a week thanks to the polythene sheeting lining the plots and this way, she says, she significantly cuts the labour that she would have required to irrigate the crop since arrowroots are highly dependent on water.
Harvesting is once a year and, to ensure that the produce is readily available, she alternates the process such that harvesting at different plots does not happen at the same time.
The 34-year-old says she earns Sh80,000 per month on average from the one-and-a-half-acre farm and that the flourishing farming enterprise has enabled her to attain higher education and has ensured that her family is food secure.
“My training through the certificate, diploma and higher diploma teacher courses has been smooth thanks to the proceeds from the farm. I am soon enrolling for a bachelor’s degree in education,” she reveals.
There are approximately 6,000 farmers with farm ponds in Ukambani. Slightly more than 4,000 of them are in Yatta in Machakos County, according to Bishop Masika, while the rest are scattered evenly across the semi-arid region.
During a recent visit to the farmers by Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana and Mbooni MP Erastus Kivasu, the leaders said rainwater harvesting holds the key to making Ukambani food secure.
“The use of water retention technologies, such as the polythene sheeting, enables farmers to conserve the available water and this ensures that their harvested water lasts longer and that farmers get more value out of their investment,” says Masika.
He notes that households that irrigate at least an acre of land and grow high value crops are able to generate income that can help them to improve their livelihoods as they grow food for their own consumption and for sale.