Seeds of change

How drought-resistant crops are helping mothers to feed their families

By Joel Cooper

WHEN she was young, Eunice Mutunga would watch rainwater rushing through streams near her home. In the semi-arid region of Kenya where she lives, this sight could mean the difference between providing for her children and seeing them go without.

Following unreliable rains the stream next to her farm has dried up, and with its loss has come great hardship. Instead of collecting water near her home, Eunice has to walk five kilometres every day — carrying a 20-litre container on her back.

“I get back pains but I have no alternative, and on the way home I have to keep stopping for rests.”

Eunice, a 37-year-old farmer, is one of many suffering the effects of drought in Kitui County, Kenya. Failing rains linked to the El Niño weather cycle have wiped out up to 80 per cent of the harvest earlier this year. It means smallholder farmers such as Eunice can struggle to grow enough to feed their families.

For the mother of three, planting crops is the only thing that’s put food on the table since her husband Joseph died of typhoid 17 years ago.

Eunice, her two children and her husband Joseph

“My youngest child was only five months old when Joseph died. My husband was the sole breadwinner. I had no choice but to get into farming — it was the only way I could feed my family.”

When the rains faltered, however, that precarious income dried up as quickly as the riverbeds of Kitui County. The once fertile acre where Eunice planted maize and beans grew barren.

“Sometimes we’d go days without something to eat. The only hope I had was that the government would give us food relief.”

Eunice walks for 20km carrying the container on her back

But rather than wait for handouts, Eunice decided to help herself. With support from Farm Africa, she is learning agricultural techniques that increase the amount she can produce.

For a start, she now grows crops that do not need as much water, such as green grams (mung beans) and sorghum.

Farm Africa’s Onesmus teaches Eunice about crop management

“These drought-tolerant crops don’t just grow bigger harvests faster, they also fetch better prices at market,” said Onesmus Mwangangi, project officer for Farm Africa in Kitui.

Then there is the technique of terracing, which helps the topsoil retain water. Eunice also received training from Farm Africa on how to use zai pits — 2ft x 2ft holes filled with manure that catch rainwater and make the soil more fertile.

She said: “Once you have your farm well prepared and the rains come, even if they are not enough, you are still able to harvest.”

While learning better ways to grow crops, Eunice is also concentrating on growth of a different kind — by investing to expand her business.

“In the past I never knew how to earn interest on the little money I had. I used to keep my money in a box inside my house.”

But with the help of Farm Africa staff, who are from the area and speak the local language, Eunice has learned to use table banking. This involves her and her peers meeting regularly to pool their financial resources, giving them access to loans.

“Now I am able to borrow and am not struggling like before. I have started to think about making sure I make more profit.”

That extra profit is also helping Eunice to give her children something she never had — a proper education. The youngest of 13 siblings, she lacked the money to progress beyond primary school. Now, thanks to the improvements in her farm, Eunice can afford school fees for her children.

“It’s important they get a good education so they do not have a hard life like the one I’ve faced.”

On International Rural Women’s Day, find out more about how Farm Africa supports women like Eunice, helping them to provide for their families.