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The Laikipia conservation agriculture project

CETRAD, The Agricultural College of Switzerland and Syngenta are collaborating to develop conservation agriculture practices and to improve the safe and effective use of crop protection products by farmers in the Laikipia District of Kenya.

Laikipia is a district of Kenya covering nearly 10,000 square kilometers on the Equator in the rain shadow of snow-capped Mount Kenya. The wildlife and spectacular landscape have encouraged a burgeoning eco-tourism industry. Over 6000 elephants and more than half of Kenya’s black rhino population roam the vast plateau. However, the ethnically diverse communities of Laikipia are highly dependent on agriculture. In recent decades the drier parts of the district on the slopes of Mount Kenya have come under particular pressure from intensive cropping of grains, roots, fruit and vegetables. Continuous low input crop production puts huge pressure on natural resources while the demand for food continues to grow. Rainfall, although averaging about 650 mm per year, can be very unreliable, especially in areas which have two distinct rainy seasons. Onset of the rains can be delayed by up to two months in some seasons. However, the deep clay soils can store sufficient water for good crops if moisture is properly conserved by limiting evaporation.

CETRAD and conservation agriculture

CETRAD, the Centre for Training and Integrated Research in ASAL (arid and semi-arid land) Development, is a joint venture between the governments of Kenya and Switzerland organised by the University of Berne. It was established in 2002 to build on the earlier Laikipia Research Programme which was set-up to study the ecology of the area in response to threats to soil, water and biodiversity. CETRAD is concerned with research and training to promote sustainable use of land and natural resources to improve farm productivity and encourage non-farm enterprises to enhance the livelihood of the people of the district.

One of CETRAD’s major work programmes concerns conservation agriculture. The project is a collaboration between CETRAD, the Agricultural College of Switzerland and Syngenta. The aim is to extend FAO sponsored efforts to promote reduction in soil tillage and improve moisture retention for higher crop yields. Training in the safe and effective use of crop protection products (CPP) is also included.

Conservation agriculture approaches have been developed in the area for the past 20 years, but uptake has generally been slow. This is due the lack of availability of suitable equipment, fears over weed control and insufficient knowledge and skills.

Conservation agriculture is a flexible set of approaches to crop production which rely on three basic principles: minimal soil disturbance to restrict erosion and loss of moisture, and avoid compaction by mouldboard ploughing; maintaining continuous soil cover by mulches or cover crops in between cropping seasons; and using crop rotations. These conserve natural resources and enhance biodiversity. When implemented properly these methods need less labour than conventional practices and give better incomes through good yields, lower inputs and reduced risks of crop failures.

Developing training modules

A RISE analysis was conducted to develop appropriate training programmes and materials in late 2006. RISE (Response-Inducing Sustainability Evaluation) is a computer-based tool for assessing the sustainability of farming systems. Economic, environmental and social indicators are included, and the strengths and weakness of current performance against these are determined. This holistic view is then used to highlight areas where improvements will enhance sustainability. RISE analyses are done by farmers completing a questionnaire with the assistance of a technical advisor. Farmers’ answers result in the performance of his system being mapped diagrammatically against 12 indicators: energy use, water use, soil condition, biodiversity, nitrogen and phosphate losses, crop protection, waste management, economic stability, economic efficiency, local economy, working conditions and social security.

The RISE analysis highlighted particular problems in use of water, poor manure management (nutrient losses and pollution because of storage methods) and very low economic efficiency and social security. The need for written records to be kept to enable good decision making and learning from them was also emphasised. Modules covering conservation agriculture and CPP safe and effective use have been developed by CETRAD and Syngenta, respectively. Modules in conservation agriculture cover: challenges in dry environments and potential solutions, principles and practice, farm record keeping, manure management, and weed management.

Personal protective equipment includes gloves, face-shields, boots and splash-proof aprons (31Kb JPEG)
Personal protective equipment includes gloves, face-shields, boots and splash-proof aprons

Modules in CPP safety training include record keeping; selecting appropriate herbicides, insecticides and fungicides; pest and disease identification; interpreting product labels; personal protective equipment (PPE); spraying; storage and disposal; and first aid. Danish sprayer company Hardi have also developed a module on knapsack sprayer calibration.

In addition to training in pesticide safety, items of Personal Protective Equipment (including gloves, face-shields, boots and splash-proof aprons), warning posters in local dialects and low cost storage boxes have been provided; and chemical waste disposal pits have been constructed.


Implementing training

Training began in 2007. Where possible, both types of training are given in the same session. Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture extension workers and agronomists from other stakeholders have also been involved to ensure continued and wider development of conservation agriculture.

In the first year smallholder communities in four areas have been involved in the project: Kalalu, Ngenia, Mathagiro and Sweetwaters. Farmer self-help groups have been set-up to implement the training, and farmers have been encouraged to share their experiences, skills and ideas with others including visits to each others’ farms.

Training sessions work best when organised in conjunction with field days which may be held by the Ministry of Agriculture or others. The project has set-up its own demonstration plots where conservation agriculture techniques can be shown working in practice. Crops include starch crops such as wheat, quinoa and cassava; protein crops like phaseolus beans, cow peas and groundnuts; oilseeds including sunflower, safflower and sesame; vegetables like brassicas, cucurbits and capsicum; and fruit such as avocado, mango and guava.

Measuring the benefits of conservation agriculture

Larger plots are being used to collect data to quantify the effects of conservation agriculture on crop yields, farm income and on the environment in comparison to plots farmed conventionally alongside - in most cases, depending on what the famers who volunteered land could offer.

An analysis of the costs of producing a mixed crop of maize and beans on one hectare plots in the long rainy season of 2007 is shown below. Maize yields were virtually the same under plots managed traditionally and those managed by conservation agriculture. Despite yields of beans being nearly 30% less under conservation agriculture, net income was nearly 20% more from the conservation agriculture managed crop. This was due to much lower costs, principally because ploughing and hand weeding are very expensive. Hand weeding – necessary even after ploughing – costs three times more than spraying a herbicide and took far longer. In fact, the African Tillage Network has estimated that 48 man-days are needed to hand-weed one hectare.

Paying strict attention to weed control is essential in conservation agriculture because weeds are not controlled by ploughing to bury them. Reducing the soil weed seedbank by exhaustion and preventing re-seeding, increasing the competition from vigorous crops and using mulches are important practices. Difficult weeds and bad infestations can be controlled by herbicides, which also save on the labour needed for hand weeding. It is essential that farmers understand how to use these effectively, including how to avoid allowing weeds becoming resistant to essential tools such as glyphosate. Alternative broad-spectrum herbicides like paraquat can also be used. Both are strongly adsorbed by soil and have low environmental impact. Syngenta’s part in the training programme are running field sessions ensuring that farmers and their families know how to handle, apply and store all CPP safely.

Graph showing the costs of producing a mixed crop of maize and beans on one hectare plots in the long rainy season of 2007 (8Kb GIF)

Lessons so far

Some issues have been noted in the first few months of training workshops. Particular problems can be caused by the different local languages when groups have been comprised of mixed tribes; demonstration equipment has to be borrowed and sometimes it is in use and unavailable; the logistics of transporting participants to workshop sessions can sometimes be difficult. These occasional problems have been addressed by using multilingual trainers and the use of handouts in the local dialects.

Mr Daniel giving farmers an energizing song about products during a break in training.

At the end of the project another RISE analysis will be conducted to determine the success in the uptake of the improved practices.

The knowledge gained from the project will be transferred to a wider range of smallholders throughout the rest of Kenya and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. This will involve TV and radio coverage, and videos. Workshops and farmers implementing conservation agriculture techniques will be filmed. Roadshows will take the messages and learning from the project to market places, Ministry of Agriculture field days and other farming community events.

The Laikipia Conservation Agriculture Project is already showing how farmers, governments, universities and business can successfully work together to improve productivity, livelihoods and the environment.