When the rains fail: how this young family is learning to be climate-smart

Born and brought up in the semi-arid region of Kitui, Kenya, Peter and Mary, a young married couple, work hard farming their seven acres of land to provide for their family.

Almost 90% of households in Kitui rely on farming to make ends meet. But over the last few years the biannual rainy seasons have been erratic, and farmers have experienced year after year of drought. Typically for farmers living in semi-arid regions, Peter and Mary are unable to tell if and when the next rains will come, and live in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Peter has seen weather patterns vary dramatically even in the past few years:

“When I was young the rains were good, but for some time now we go for long periods of time without receiving a good rain — and it has been worse over the last seven years.

When the rains are good it is possible to earn a good income from farming because you can get large yields, which you can sell to get money. But there has been a recurrent drought situation for three years. Mostly the trend has been that the harvest we get sustains the family for only one or two months. Around half of the year we do not have enough to eat.”

And recurrent droughts don’t just mean food shortages — they dry up rivers, diminish underground water supplies, and leave the soil on Peter and Mary’s farm unable to retain moisture, so that it runs through their hands like dust.

Mary has to travel for two hours to collect water, which costs her 10 shillings for 20 litres. And the water that she does collect is contaminated, making her and her children unwell. With these frequent droughts affecting both water and food supplies, Peter has been forced to sell off some of the family’s valuable cattle:

“The only way out is to sell the livestock rather than waiting for them to die of starvation. In 2009 we had to sell our cow for 2000 shillings (£14) which is a huge loss because if you look at the valuation, at good times it could be sold for between 40,000 and 50,000 shillings (£280 — £350).”

But there is hope for families like Peter and Mary’s. Farm Africa has been running training sessions on drought-tolerant crops in Kitui. Working with over 100 farmers, we’re helping them to learn techniques to conserve water and soil, and encouraging them to grow crops such as sorghum and green grams, which are more drought-tolerant than traditional crops such as maize. These drought-tolerant crops are also in high demand locally, for example from local breweries, which means that they bring in a much better price.

All this will help Peter and Mary become more resilient to the effects of the frequent droughts, building up their incomes so that even when the rains fail, they’ll have reserves to draw on and their family won’t go hungry.

Learning about the best ways to farm in semi-arid regions is particularly important in a world where the climate is changing as a result of carbon emissions. Being able to withstand unexpected changes in the weather is sure to help farmers like Peter and Mary prepare for an uncertain future.

Peter and Mary are keen to improve their farming techniques, and have been taking it in turns to attend the Farm Africa training sessions. In her most recent session Mary learnt how to manage soil quality:

“Today I learnt some things that I did not know, such as the importance of spacing the crops and about soil fertility management through the use of manure. I have never applied it before and it was a surprise because I never knew manure could be that important for farming.

We know about the importance of diversifying our income and I would like to buy some livestock that can be an alternative source — but we have a problem because now we do not have money. But with Farm Africa’s help we hope that will change in the future.”

And with a bigger income and more security, Peter and Mary can make sure that their children get the education they deserve. They both dropped out of school at a young age, unable to pay their fees, and they’re determined that their children will do things differently.

Working with Farm Africa, Peter and Mary can put all their new-found knowledge into practice before the next planting season, which begins in September. And with the right expertise and training, they can start to grow brighter futures for their four children.

You can support our work helping families in Kitui to avoid the worst effects of drought. Visit our website to find out more.