Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Grass farmers earning millions, making a difference in the ASALs

By Caleb Mutua

Makueni County; As Kenyans continue to bear the brunt of climate change, which has left many depending on relief food, a small group of farmers in Makueni County is smiling all the way to the bank.
Despite the worsening and devastating floods and cycles of droughts brought by climate change, they harvest every season, continuing to puzzle many.
They plant grass! Yes. For nearly a decade now, Kavatini Pasture and Livestock Improvement Group (Kapalig) has been growing indigenous grasses and the rest is a success story.
They mostly grow Buffel grass or the African fox-tail, Horsetail, Bush rye, Maasai love grass and Rhodes grass providing forage for their livestock and sale the surplus as hay.
In addition to producing fodder, which turned out to be an effective pasture improvement initiative in the asals, these dedicated grass farmers are benefiting from the sale of grass seeds which has a ready market both locally and internationally.
African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), FAO-Kenya, FAO-Somalia,World Vision, Care International and Germany Agro Action are some of the ready market for grass seeds.
Grass seeds are sold at Sh1000 per kilograms for most grass species while rare grasses such as bush rye are fetching as much as Sh1,800 a kilo.
In 2009 alone, Kapalig made a Sh one million profit from the sale of grass seeds, a time when many farmers were abandoning agriculture for other income generating activities because of prolonged droughts.
“When I first started growing grass, people thought I was crazy because grass grows naturally. But with time and because of the progress I have made, my neighbouring farmers have joined me” says Kapalig founder Mr Jeremiah Ngaya.
Mr Ngaya founded Kapalig in 2004 when a severe drought resulted to mass deaths of livestock because of lack of enough forage.
In 2010, he exported 1.5 tonnes of grass seeds to Somalia and 1.1 tonnes to Sudan in 2011. He is now planning to export three tonnes of grass seeds to Rwanda for the first time this year.
With the county receiving 350-500mm annual rainfall, Mr Ngaya realized that the rain was not enough to plant and harvest maize but adequate to grow grasses.
Latest annual agricultural report indicate that maize production could fall by four million bags this season due to bad weather that interrupted planting and expensive farm inputs for farmers with low incomes.
It is these precarious situations characterized by a vicious cycle of destructive weather phenomena further exacerbated by climate change that saw Mr Ngaya approach his neighbours, persuading them to start growing grass.
“Traditionally, farmers would keep livestock and sell them during dry spells to buy food. But since we started growing grass, our livestock have enough quality forage that meets their nutritional value demands.
Mr Ngaya, who has been ranked the best farmer in Makindu by World Food Program (WFP) for two consecutive years, trains Kapalig members on good forage quality for the livestock and feed and grass seed quality and water harvesting technologies among other things.
When the farmers have too much hay in their farms and the rains are around the corner especially from June, Kapalig allow other farmers to bring in their cows and graze on the grass at a fee. The leasing rates are Sh 30 each cow for a day.
“We are now 32 members and there are many other neighbours who have heard about our success and they are willing to join us,” says Mrs Pauline Kimole, an elated member of Kapalig.
The group now receives weather outlook reviews from the Kenya Meteorological department and Kapalig members receive phone calls and text messages from other farmers asking if and when it will rain again.
But even more importantly, all the 32 Kapalig members come from different places and have their own groups that deal with livestock, tree planting, bee keeping, poultry and other agricultural activities.
“Our individual groups have benefited a lot with all the knowledge and skills we’ve learnt from Kapalig and some of our groups have already started growing grass,” says Kapalig member Mr Julius Muthoka.
Thanks to institutions like the University of Nairobi (UoN) and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari), which have helped the group through financial resources and capacity building, Kapalig is no longer smiling in the dark.
Their success story is spreading like bush fire and now famers in Masimba, Taita Taveta and Mwingi among other places are growing grass. Their expertise on grass growing and its challenges in Kenya’s ASALs has also helped researchers in their studies.
“Researchers have overtaken the role of agricultural extension officers because they come with technologies and projects and practically apply them with the help of the farmers at the grassroots level,” observes Mr Ngaya.
Ms Clara Machogu, a graduate student studying the productivity of Brachiaria hybrid cv. mulato II and native pasture species in semi-arid rangelands of Kenya at the University of Nairobi, has greatly benefited from Kapalig experience with grass growing.
In October 2012, Ms Machogu, with the help of her project supervisor Prof Kinuthia Ngugi, visited the group in Kavatini, Makindu District.
They wanted to find out and document the opportunities open to, and challenges faced by small-scale farmers venturing into fodder production and seed bulking in Mukueni County.
“We also wanted to assess some of the best grass species in Makueni County, if the farmers plant pure stands or mixed stands, where they get their seeds from and how long have they been growing grass among other things,” said the head of the Land Resource Management and Agriculture Technology (Larmat) at UoN Prof Kinuthia Ngugi.
According to Kapalig, Cenchrus ciliaris also known as African fox-tail (Nthata  Kivumbu) emerged the best grass species because of its germination rate, it is most adaptive to the asal climate, has a high demand and a ready market and leads to high milk production in livestock.
Eragrostis superba locally known as Maasai Love grass or Mbweetwa in Kamba was ranked the second best grass species while Chloris roxburghiana or Horsetail (Kilili) emerged the third in farmers’ preference.
“Kapalig farmers were very helpful and informative. Their hands-on experience in grass growing that they have gained over the years will really come in handy in my thesis because they successfully answered my questionnaire,” said Ms Machogu.
The group intends to start bee keeping, which they said has less competition and honey has a ready market. They also look forward to keeping hybrid galla goats for meat and milk.
“Goats eat less food, browse and graze less and even neighbours accommodate goats in their farm more compared to cows,” adds Kapalig member Josephine Kasuma.
Continous drought, lack of fence on their farms and destructive termites are some of the major problems facing grass farmers.
First published in October 2012.


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