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Growing crops in Turkana cuts reliance on pastoralism

Mention Lodwar in Turkana county and what springs to mind is sand, sand, and well, more sand! Well, that is right; this region is often struck by drought.

However, if you happen to travel to Kangalita location of Turkwel Division in Loima district, 67km Southwest of Lodwar town, you will witness a break in the monotonous desert.

So we found out when we recently flew out of Wilson Airport in Nairobi to Lodwar airstrip 510km to the north before driving out to villages in Kangalita.       

Located in a region known for famine and food insecurity, where many families depend on relief food, the area now grows several acres of green plantations. The crops dominating the landscape include vegetables, maize, millet and sorghum. 

And no, the area did not suddenly start experiencing a different weather pattern from the rest of the region. The desert bloom is an ambitious project implemented by a non-governmental organisation, ChildFund since 2010 in partnership with United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP).

This formerly barren land rests near the riparian area of the Turkwel river. The water is drawn into a 15km irrigation canal structure to serve 750 acres of arable land.

Mary Apus, who lives five kilometres  away in Nakitokirion village, is among hundreds of farmers who own a stake in the vast land. We find her singing happily as she roasts green maize in an open fire with several other farmers as if celebrating a bumper harvest.

The group had gathered to hold their weekly meeting to deliberate on farming activities. Apus, a mother of six and several grandchildren, says her life has changed for the better since the project began in 2010.

She says her family and Loima residents in general have transitioned from the traditional over-reliance on livestock keeping to sustainable farming and they are now reaping the benefits.

“My school-going children do not have to worry about changing schools anymore. Before, their schooling depended on where we had settled in search of pasture,” says Apus, a widow.

Having settled in the area, it has become easier for even the government and non-governmental organisations to set up social amenities as well as other developmental projects in the area. A model farm at the scheme covers three acres and is used by organisation as the demonstration plot for the viability of vegetables and other new crop varieties.

Johana Ekidor, 35, and a resident of Lojokobwor village, who is also a beneficiary of the scheme and now the secretary of the framers’ group, says his half-acre-farm produces seven bags of maize, enough to sustain his family. He sells the surplus.

“Unlike a decade ago, livestock keeping is no longer as prestigious here. Most of us have turned to crop farming as an alternative means of livelihood and also, we use maize and millet stalks and cobs to produce fodder to feed the cattle,” he offers.

Farming, according to Ekidor, also came as a relief because the harsh weather conditions as a result of climatic change left them devastated as they lost their livestock. “Farming with the assistance of ChildFund and partner organisations has turned our fortunes around,” says Ekidor.

Similar sentiments are echoed by Losenu Ekiru, a 30-year-old mother of five who has been planting maize since 2013 on her half-acre farm. She harvests 10 bags during the two planting seasons each year.

“We have diversified from livestock-keeping. We are now growing crops and the gains are way better than livestock-keeping because we can harvest grain and keep it for future use,” she adds.

Apus, Ekidor and Ekiru, however, share one concern— that the future might turn bleak if the canals that channel water through furrows to their farms are not extended to irrigate more land. “It would be encouraging if the canals were extended to utilise more land,” Ekiru says.

The project utilises a labour force of 250 registered households with about six beneficiaries each. Male-headed households are 25, female 225 and the total number of beneficiaries is about 1,500. Each household donates one worker to support asset creation activities.

Ebukut Josphat, ChildFund project coordinator for the Asset Creation Project, says they engage communities on a daily basis, offering food incentives to work, training farmers, supervising canal desilting, basin construction, supplying farm seeds, farm tools and implements. 

“We have been able to distribute over 300 assorted farm tools to promote farming activities, trained 500 farmers on good agro-economic practices as well as distributed food items such as maize and vegetable oil as incentives on a monthly basis to promote participation in FFA (Food for Assets) activities,” he offers.

The project has constructed intakes, division boxes and lining of some parts of primary canals. There is also a perimeter enclave for protection of crops from wild animals and by-passers.

The irrigation scheme has also contributed to food security and income diversification in the area. The community also harvests additional food from ratoons known as ejojo after every sorghum harvest.

The project has not been without its challenges. Ebukut says seepages in the canal system often lead to expensive water losses. “There is also lack of a permanent fence to protect crops from livestock and human destruction while distance to the market for the produce as well as lack of storage facilities have been major challenges.

The locals still depend on the government for farm inputs, land preparation and linkage to markets which has led to the sluggish uptake of modern farming ,” ” he says.

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