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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 2 (2012 Deadline)

Unlocking agricultural potential in drylands: enhancing efficient utilization of soil moisture for improved smallholder farm productivity in ASALs of Kenya

PI: Mary Baaru (Kenyatta University)
U.S. Partner: Ethan Allen (Pacific Resources for Education and Learning)
Project Dates: August 2013 to October 2016
The amount of land devoted to agricultural uses has been reduced as a result of rising population and associated growing demands for land resources. This has resulted in increased exploitation of drylands. In view of this situation, utilization of the resource base in drylands areas can no longer proceed on a "business as usual” basis. This PEER Science project aims to address issues of water scarcity, deforestation, insufficient extension services, and lack of appropriate cropping systems in Kenya. Beyond its research components, the project also includes capacity-building activities designed for farmers in drylands areas. Groups of farmers will be trained on how to implement soil and water conservation measures and will be given kits to assist them in putting these measures in place, first on the farms of group members and later on non-member farms. 

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Using cows to dig the land and prepare it for planting. Photo courtesy of Dr. Baaru
Trained farmers will fill in the gap left by the shrinking extension service and ensure that information passed from farmer to farmer is reliable. The research to be carried out under the project will also provide in-depth understanding on moisture distribution and soil properties, as well as optimal cropping systems to utilize moisture for maximum land productivity. The project should result in improved landscapes on conserved farms, leading to reduced land and water degradation. Food security will be enhanced due to improved land productivity. Farmers will also be economically empowered and obtain improved living standards from increased sales of crops and livestock products.

Summary of Recent Activities
This PEER project by Dr. Baaru has come to an end. The main objective of this project was to address issues of water scarcity, deforestation, insufficient extension services, and lack of appropriate cropping systems in Kenya. The project also aimed to provide in-depth understanding on moisture distribution and soil properties, as well as optimal cropping systems to utilize moisture for maximum land productivity. Beyond its research components, the project also included capacity building activities designed for farmers in drylands areas. These are the main achievements of this project.

Trainings were conducted on farms selected in a participatory manner where extension officers, administration staff and farmer groups were involved in selecting the most appropriate farm as a demonstration site. Selection was based on: 1) group membership: a demonstration could only be set on farm where the farmer was a member of community group 2) farm size: a farm that could accommodate all the experimental blocks 3) and a farm that was open to other farmers as a training site. Fields activities were carried out on these plots and they included land preparation, weeding, soil sampling, crop data collection and harvesting. This was done for three short and two long rain seasons. Training of farmers was carried out to highlight the importance of water use efficiency, soil and water conservation and environmental degradation. About 45 farmers were well trained to be able to pass same knowledge to their fellow farmers.

The PI and her team worked with government agencies mainly the Ministry of Agriculture who are well vast with the area and farmers. They were the linkages between the research team and farmers. It was important to collaborate with these staff as they could up scale the technology to the rest of farmers. Community groups were also major collaborators. Since the research could not reach all the farmers in the area, we worked with about five groups and this was a representative sample of the community at large. A survey was carried to find out community awareness on causes and impacts of soil erosion and a study to understand erosion hotspots was also carried out. Out of this work a master’s thesis was developed and the student graduated in September 2015.

During the project period, Dr. Baaru presented a paper during a conference on ecological modeling at Towson University, Maryland in May 2016. The title of the paper was: “Effects of human settlement on land use and land cover in Machakos County”.The paper was also presented as a poster.

Dr. Baaru reports that her department at Kenyatta University is developing a PhD program with taught courses which is based on her PEER research achievements. She is happy to report that she is one of the key persons involved in making this program a reality. Having hands on field experience, it has become possible to facilitate the setting up of a program that is relevant and that will address the real situation on the ground. The department hopes to have the program start by September 2017.
In summary, results from the demonstration plots set up at the start of the project indicate that this technology could be an appropriate alternative to conserve and store water for increased production especially by the poor farmers who may not afford the expensive technologies. It is also possible that the adoption rate of the same practice was an improvement of what they already are doing, meaning the livelihoods of the communities could be enhanced. The results also indicate the need for capacity building in the community on soil erosion management. The survey indicated that most farmers did not understand what it was, the causes and how it can be prevented. This gave the extension agents a niche from where to start. They are using this technology as one of the simple alternatives in water conserving that can be embraced by farmers to increase crop yield. The farmers on whose demonstration plots the trainings were being done have become good crusaders of this technology.

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PhD student collecting crop yield parameters at harvesting. Photo courtesy of Dr. Baaru
PhD student and project assistant taking plant height data. Photo courtesy of Dr. Baaru

Results on land use changes enhanced the knowledge of the community in terms of the position different land use and they were able to identify areas that needed conservation attention e.g forest cover and water resources that showed an increased decline for last 10 yrs. This research involved generating knowledge on simple, appropriate and affordable water conserving technology through demonstration of farmers’ plots. With increased crop yield observed using the technology, there will be enhanced food security as more farmers adopt it and spread the technique to others. 

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