New grass varieties and a dual purpose sweet potato increase farmers’ fortunes in western Kenya.
Farmers in Nyando, western Kenya, have embraced new fodder grass varieties and a dual-purpose sweet potato variety to supplement natural grasses such as Couch, Kikuyu and weeds, commonly used as livestock feed during the rainy season. During dry spells, farmers traveled for more than 10 kilometers in search of rice husks and stalks from the neighboring irrigation schemes. This led to low milk productivity and stunted growth in animals due to poor nutrition.
In 2012, 50 champion farmers started growing drought tolerant Kakamega-2 napier grass along terraces. This followed a new initiative supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and partners, aimed at building the adaptive capacity of farmers. Rose Atieno from Kobiero village in Nyando, is one of the champion farmers involved in the initiative:
Before I planted kakamega-2 napier grass, I would travel to Ahero Irrigation Scheme to buy rice stalks and husks during dry spells. I used 2000 Kenya shillings (USD 20) per week for four to five months each year to acquire stalks but it was not enough to feed my animals. Subsequently, I sold off some livestock against my wish due to financial constraints. Now I have enough fodder for my livestock all year round. I harvest Napier grass during the rainy season, make hay and store for use in dry seasons. I have increased my livestock from four to six local cows, and sheep from six to eight”.
Apart from napier grass, CCAFS partners introduced Brachiaria species such as Cayman and Mulato grasses that were bred by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). These were multiplied in the community on two bulking sites established in Kobiero and Obinju villages. The grasses are drought tolerant, develop biomass - stems and leaves - twice faster than napier grass. Apart from the fodder benefit, their fibrous roots hold soil particles together controlling soil erosion, and their flowers provide nectar to bees; also kept in Nyando.
We got more information about cayman and mulato grasses when we visited Kisumu Agricultural Society of Kenya exhibitions in 2014. With, the help of Vi Agroforestry extension officers, we acquired seedlings from neighbouring Homa Bay County and planted them on our group smart farm. We also planted the grass around our 300,000litre mini-earth dam stabilizing the banks,” says Catherine Akinyi Owiti, Chair of Obinju climate-smart farm.
Akinyi Owiti's group has harvested the grasses thrice gaining a total of USD 240. The proceeds were used to buy fertilizer to keep the grass healthy; and also buy feeds for fish reared in the earth dam.
“As a group, we agreed to donate stolons - grass stems which grow at the soil surface or just below ground - each rainy season, to community members who plant the grass along terraces to curb soil erosion,” she continues. To date, 15 individual community members have established Mulato grass strips. By 2017, the group hopes all community members will not spend extra time and money looking for fodder since the grasses will be readily available.
To enhance nutritional gains in livestock and people, CCAFS in collaboration with International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and International Potato Centre (CIP) introduced a dual-purpose sweet potato variety with high foliage and root tuber production. The crop takes two months for maximum leaves cover and three months for tuber maturity. The crop has high protein content that is useful for livestock growth and higher milk production. As a cover crop it reduces soil erosion, improves soil structure and retains higher moisture content compared to grasses.
Champion farmer Merceline Atieno attests to the benefits of the dual sweet potato variety:
I was trained to process silage using potato vines, and maize and sorghum leftover leaves and stalks which I use to feed my goats and sheep in dry spells when grass is scarce. This has reduced cases of nutrition related sicknesses animals. Before introduction of sweet potato vines I hardly got a litre of milk per day from the goats but now I get two litres. At the same time my children enjoy eating boiled potatoes served with milk for lunch. From my small parcel of land, I have sold tubers worth ksh.15000 (USD 150) and used the money to pay school fees. I could have harvested more but potato black weevils attacked my crop. I will keep planting the crop in the two rainy seasons to sustain my family.”
CCAFS and partners will continue working with Nyando farmers to build their capacity to handle climate-related risks. Presently, champion farmers share their knowledge with other members of the community during farmer learning events. These are annual fairs aimed at sharing knowledge on tried and tested innovative climate-smart agriculture technologies and practices stimulate adoption by all.