For most of 2020, East African nations were fighting a locust attack unlike any that had been experienced in the region for 70 years.
Scientists linked the damaging swarms to the effects of climate change, especially a prolonged period of exceptionally wet weather, including several rare cyclones that had struck the region in the 18 months prior to the invasion.
These impacts are related to deforestation and degradation of forested areas which act as a carbon sink to prevent harmful gases from reaching the atmosphere.
To address these increasingly severe environmental impacts, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), initiated a project to enhance the sustainable management of Kenya’s Kakamega Forest.
The Kakamega Forest has, in recent times, been suffering a rapid decline of tree stock due to illegal encroachment to harvest firewood, timber and herbs and the conversion to pasture, leading to extreme biodiversity loss.
The project, Scaling up Sustainable Land Management and Biodiversity Conservation to Reduce Environmental Degradation in Small Scale Agriculture in Western Kenya, supported by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), started in 2016.
“The population bulge in Western Kenya in the last decade has resulted in increased demand for food, shelter, water, energy and, to some extent, waste management disposal. In order to meet these needs on their low-productivity landholdings, there have been encroachments into the forest to open new farms and obtain timber and fuelwood to supplement incomes. This has resulted in a gradual and increasing level of degradation of the forests and the ecosystems,” explained AGRA’s resilience officer, Assan Ng’ombe.
To mitigate these threats to the forest and its biodiversity, the project is working with the county governments in Western Kenya to promote alternative sources of income generation and energy sources.
“The project, which runs until 2022, targets three administrative counties in Western Kenya, who between them account for more than 3.3 million people, most of whom are smallholder farmers,” said AGRA’s associate program officer, Dr. Abednego Kiwia.
The project is focused on the implementation of an access and benefit-sharing agreement, which defines the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.
In its implementation, the project is based on a model for improving the welfare of agricultural communities by reducing pressure on forests and protected areas through enhancing farmers’ capacity in sustainable intensification and risk management.
Women’s groups in Vihiga, for example, were shown how to stagger the production of traditional African vegetables (TAVs) in line with market needs.
This is in addition to promoting the use of modern production inputs like appropriate and healthy seeds, fertilizers and other agrochemicals, and integrated pest management systems.
Evelyn Imasia is one beneficiary whose life has been transformed after she doubled her production of TAVs.
Today, Imasia can adequately cater to her family’s needs through her income from TAV sales, which has increased over sevenfold in three growing seasons from $75.
“I can now comfortably feed and educate my children from my vegetable sales,” Imasia said.
So far, the project has been a success, with targeted farmers reporting a 17% increase in income since 2017.
Households in the area earned an average annual income of over $1,000 in the two growing seasons, mainly from the sales of maize, beans and indigenous vegetables, which is unprecedented for a small-scale farmer in Western Kenya.
“Additionally, as a result of the improved financial bearing for the farming communities, there is evidence of landscapes being restored with enriched soils,” said John Macharia, AGRA’s lead program officer for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.
This evidence confirms that farmers with access to agricultural training and to context-specific inputs and advisory services are more open to implementing sustainable land and forest management (SLFM) strategies in their lands than those without.
“These farmers [those who participate in the project] go on to invest in high-value production systems that consider the importance of biodiverse ecosystems in the improvement of human health and jobs creation,” Macharia said.
In Embu County, one of Kenya’s food baskets, land subdivisions and soil degradation as a result of overgrazing, overcropping, erosion and poor farming methods are threatening agricultural productivity in the region.
To counter this threat, AGRA and the IKEA Foundation are investing in a project to train farmers in Kenya’s Embu County on regenerative agriculture.
The project is promoting an intercropping system of maize and high-yielding, nitrogen-fixing climbing beans, alongside agroforestry trees and shrubs, such as Calliandra calothyrsus, Gliricidia sepium and Leucaena spp. to improve soil fertility, increase production and boost the resilience of 10,000 farmers.
Such projects, according to Dr. Kiwia, can be replicated in other parts of the continent to correct biodiversity losses and avert pending crises related to climate change.