Over the last decade, we have assumed that the only way to resolve Kenya’s hunger problem is through large-scale commercial agriculture or through genetically modified food. But this narrative may have a twist owing to the significance of small-scale farming.
Kenya’s agriculture is predominantly small-scale farming and is carried out on farms averaging 0.2 to 3 hectares mostly on a subsistence basis. Small-scale operations account for over 70 per cent of agricultural production and meet about 75 per cent of the national food demand. Therefore, the most important reason for supporting small-scale farming is its critical role in achieving food security, particularly for those who are vulnerable to chronic hunger or food poverty.
Despite small-scale farming is the backbone of agriculture and food security, it not only feeds families but also generates jobs and catalyses the growth of rural businesses. This is particularly in the sector of micro and small enterprises.
This category of farmers have been left on their own and in most of the times, they have to battle numerous challenges ranging from harsh weather condition, substandard seed and low-quality fertilisers.
The donkey is among the key animals small scale farmers use on a daily basis to improve their income.
Despite the increase in mechanisation throughout the world, donkeys still play an important role in transportation of goods especially in arid and semi-arid areas, where the road network is poor or non-existent. However, it has been noted that animal owners cannot willingly improve the welfare of their animals if they are struggling to meet their basic needs.
Tharaka Constituency is considered a semi-arid area as it receives little rainfall suitable for livestock production. Poor methods of farming and soil conservation, charcoal burning and overgrazing have left the earth bare and rocky. The sloping areas experience uncontrolled soil erosion, which results in deep gullies across the constituency’s landscape. This has made the area unfavourable for agricultural activities leaving residents with the only option for livestock rearing which also faces several challenges. Temperatures range between 22°C to 36°C while soils are generally low in fertility and are characterized by poor water retention capacities. Livelihoods of the vast majority of Tharaka Nithi people is highly dependent on unreliable small-scale agriculture.
Smallholder livestock keepers rely on livestock assets such as goats and cattle as their livelihood source. This livestock are often not spared from the effects of recurrent drought which leads to loss of body condition and sometimes deaths due to lack of feeds to sustain them through the drought period. Donkeys, therefore, form a major part in sustaining the wellbeing of other livestock by fetching water and feed during drought. Additionally, donkeys also support the women of Tharaka with household chores such as fetching water, food and charcoal.
Noting the recurrent nature of drought in the region, the programme sought to establish measures to cushion livestock against the impact of drought through ensuring availability of feeds throughout the year which in the long run would improve the community incomes. In 2019, KENDAT selected two community groups from Kamarandi and Kathangachini locations in Tharaka Constituency. The groups are mainly made up of over 50 women who own donkeys in the two areas. With the two groups, the programme established two model community fodder banks on a cost sharing basis. A community fodder bank is a large scale storage structure for livestock feed preservation in form of hay for use in dry periods. Each fodder bank has a capacity to hold 10 tons of feeds that is estimated to support the livestock owned by the group members through a 2 - 3-month period of drought if supplemented with grazing.
Coupled with the construction of the fodder banks, the groups were trained on drought preparedness and dryland fodder production and preservation in collaboration with the County Government of Tharaka Nithi. The training is focused on improving the existing community knowledge of drought coping mechanisms such as methods of fodder farming and preservation of crop residues. These communities rely on farming drought tolerant crops such as green grams and sorghum which other than being food for humans, their residues can be used as livestock feed. Since the establishment of the banks, the groups have been able to store crop residues and hay.
The fodder bank project has presented the groups with opportunities of trading in fodder. Once members’ stored crop residue has run out they are able to purchase the stored hay for their livestock. Non group members are also able to purchase hay, though at a slightly higher cost than members. The profit made from the sale of the hay is kept in the group’s account for later use to purchase more hay or other group projects.
Unlike in the past when livestock owners would buy small bundles of hay of unknown quality in the open air markets; the fodder banks offer quality, well preserved hay from known sources. In collaboration with the County Government of Tharaka Nithi, plans are underway to conduct indigenous seed bulking and multiplication and carry out feed qualitative analysis to ascertain the nutrient content that can also facilitate branding and encourage replication of the community fodder bank concept across the county.
Additionally, the groups were trained by the Marimanti Sheep and Goat Station on goat breeding improvement and management. With this training, groups were taught to focus on reducing their livestock to manageable numbers and improving the quality of goats by cross-breeding with the local goats for drought-resistant and larger offspring. These goats are more likely to fetch better prices at markets and thus boost their income.
Overall, the fodder banks have had a positive impact on the women in Tharaka Constituency. They have been able to minimise post-harvest waste by storing the crop residues for their livestock ahead of the drought. They have reduced their goat herds to more manageable sizes and are able to maintain their body condition throughout the year. This also means that they are able to fetch good prices for their goats at the local markets. Most of all, from the income earned from the sale of hay or goats, they have been able to set up a donkey kitty. The donkey kitty is individual member monthly contribution for veterinary care of their donkeys. This ensures that their trusted helpers are always healthy and able to continue supporting daily household chores.