MOOF-Africa helps farmers restore degraded soils and improve productivity in Kenya
Peter Murage, agronomist and founder of the NGO Mount Kenya Organic Farming (MOOF-Africa), spoke to us about promoting regenerative farming in Kenya in an area of severe soil degradation. His non-profit organisation does research and gives trainings and demonstrations to farmers on how to restore depleted soil and helping them to improve productivity in a sustainable way. So far, 3,500 smallholder farmers have been trained and this has had a positive impact on their food and nutrition security, economic empowerment and also contributes to environmental conservation. We also talk about the problems of the fertilizer industry in Kenya.
Interview taken by Kathelijne Bonne, 30 May 2022. All pictures with permission of Peter Murage.
Mr Murage, how did you become aware of the problems of soil degradation in your country? What is the story behind your NGO?
As so many Kenyans, I have been confronted with the problem of food security from a young age. I grew up in a peasant family with 10 siblings, and my parents could not provide enough food for all of us. I got concerned and I wanted to know why smallholder farmers were not able to produce enough food for their families. I wondered if it had to do something with the farming methods. It sparked my interest and I went on studying Agriculture. Then I started working in the Ministry of Agriculture. I worked with smallholder farmers in food production in many parts of Kenya. I started noticing that many things that were not right. No matter how much fertilizer was applied, crop yield did not improve. Also, when more irrigation water was applied, it didn't get better.
I later realized that the poor crop yields were caused by the poor soil health. The soils were in bad condition. Indeed, the smallholder farmers' soils were degraded by overuse of synthetic fertilizers, hazardous pesticides and herbicides.
How bad is soil degradation in Kenya?
Soil degradation in Kenya extremely high and it is characterised by low fertility, low water holding capacity and lack of organic matter. The soils have a very hard layer (a "hardpan") just below 150 mm depth, and and at the surface it shows deep cracks due to excessive loss of soil moisture. Plant roots have difficulty penetrating the hardpan to reach the soil moisture and get access to soil minerals. And due to the hardpan, they are unable to firmly anchor their roots.
Low soil fertility leads to stunted plant growth and low yields. An acre of maize crop, the stable food crop in Kenya on degraded soil produces only 8 bags per acre instead of 20 bags per acre. This contributes to food insecurity. Overuse of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides kills soil life and lowers soil biodiversity. This also has adverse effects on the soil structure. Healthy soil is soft and crumbly, and enables root hairs to spread within the soil structure to absorb water and minerals.
Soil degradation is very common on the plots of smallholder farmers. One way to get an idea of soil health is through measuring its acidity (the pH). The pH affects the way minerals are absorbed through the roots. Degraded soils are often very acid due to the excessive use of synthetic fertilizers and harzadous pesticides that destroy soil life.
What was your idea to reverse the damage done on the soils?
I wanted to change the industrial farming system to a more sustainable farming system which conserves the environment. I could not change the Agricultural Policies in the government so I resigned. In 2002, I established a Regenerative Agriculture Farmers centre in the outskirts of my home town Nanyuki, about 250 km north of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
(*) Regenerative Agriculture (RA) refers any agricultural activity that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. Its goals include increasing food production and security while decreasing environmental impact, reversing climate change, increasing soil health, reversing biodiversity loss, etc.
Your story shows that change has to come from below, from the people. Do you think that by now and after much warnings about soil degradation worldwide, also the Government of Kenya would encourage and fund regenerative farming methods?
This is an interesting question: The change in agricultural systems in Kenya will have to come from the bottom upwards. This means that non-for-profit organisations such as MOOF-AFRICA, civil society, faith-based organisations and the farmers cooperatives will play a key role to change from an industrial farming system to a more sustainable agriculture systems through Regenerative Agriculture (RA). The government is still hesitant to fund RA systems in Kenya due to lack of proper agricultural policies and research data on how it will increase crop yields as compared to industrial farming. The positive part is that the Ministry of Agriculture extension services officers are promoting sustainable agriculture through reduced use of synthetic fertilizers, integration of agroforestry systems and use of compost, and cover crops to protect the soil.
Are there players in the fertilizer industry that benefit from the farmers' dependency on fertilizers and herbicides?
The topic about the fertilizer industry is a hot one in Kenya. Some of the people in the government promote industrial farming and use of synthetic fertilizers. They have interests in the lucrative fertilizer industry. Kenya does not manufacture fertilizer but it imports fertilizer from developed countries. The fertilizer market is a money minting business and some government officials, who own some of these fertilizers importing companies to Kenya, would prefer that farmers continue with the industrial way of farming. Furthermore, farmers have entered into loans and debts, looking for funds to purchase chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which leads to soil degradation and low crop yields. This creates a vicious cycle towards food and nutrition insecurity in Kenya and many other places in Africa.
How does a degraded soil look like in Kenya?
Degraded soil in Kenya looks greyish in colour with no or little vegetation cover, with small water gullies on the ground surface. It lacks a the dark/black humus-rich soil horizon with high organic matter content.
How do you share your knowledge through MOOF-Africa?
Giving demonstrations in our training centre turns out to be the most efficient and best received way of disseminating knowledge on farming techniques in Kenya. Our demonstrations took shape after an initial feasibility survey carried out together with a Organic Farming organisation from the UK (Ryton Gardens, Coventry, UK, formerly the Henry Doubleday Research Association) in 1998-99. Some of the farmers (average age 63 years) are illiterate, which makes sharing knowledge through demonstrations an excellent way of knowledge interchange.
MOOF-Africa owns a 5-hectare training and demonstration farm to offer Regenerative Organic Agriculture examples, including high value compost making, plant extracts for pest and disease control, agroforestry systems, organic fertilizers (vermiculture), companion planting and ground cover crops. The MOOF Centre is located within the community and is easily accessed by farmers by bike or on foot, without having to pay the bus fare. Farmers are invited for field days where they are introduced to new Regenerative Agriculture systems and they can ask questions. MOOF-Africa also offers back-up support through several extension programmes. Famers are also informed on renewable energy systems and sustainable water management for agriculture, for example, they can conserve water through surface rain-runoff harvesting.
Pictures: Men and women from the farms attending MOOF-Africa demonstrations.
Are the Kenyan smallholder farmers aware that soil degradation is a huge problem? Do they know the causes?
Yes, smallholder farmers are aware about soil degradation since they apply synthetic fertilizers only to notice that it doesn't improve the crop yields. It is becoming a trend that before purchasing the seeds, they look for money to purchase expensive synthetic fertilizers, currently at $60USD per 50 kg bag of Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) fertilizer. When it is supposed to rain, but it doesn't, the fertilizers scorches or burns the seeds in the dry soil, which leads to a total crop failure.
Yes, they now know that the causes are the overuse of acidic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The soil becomes acidic and devoid of soil life, fertility and productivity decreases. The result is the vicious cycle of synthetic fertilizer dependency.
What they don't know is how to address soil degradation on their farms.
Do they welcome the 'new' ideas of regenerative farming? Or is it better to say that these ideas are not really new but was the way of cultivating before colonization, population growth, industrialization, etc.?
Yes, they very much welcome the ideas of Regenerative Farming and to them this is not new as they used to practice Regenerative Agriculture before colonisation. Colonisation brought about a green revolution with industrial farming ideas in the form of modern farming systems.
The farmers are not willing to go back entirely to the old traditional farming systems perse as it were. They want a farming system which keeps some of the good old traditional farming systems mixed with modern scientific findings and work towards a stable and sustainable agricultural system.
This is what Regenerative Agriculture offers the farmers. Regenerative Organic Farming will feed the world by making sure that each individual household has enough food and surplus to share with relatives and neighbours.
How does regenerative farming restore soil?
Regenerative agriculture restores the soil through agroforestry: trees and crops are grown on the same plot. Tree roots open up the soil so that air and water infiltrate easily to the 150 mm soil depth. The tree roots hold soil particles together, preventing soil erosion. The canopies protect the soil surface from erosion by water run-off and fast wind. Tree leaves fall on the ground, decompose and become part of the soil organic matter, which in turn increases the water holding capacity and moisture content. And as trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and fix it into the soil, the farming system also mitigates climate change.
Minimum or Zero Tillage restores soil fertility by not exposing the soil and its organisms to the vagaries of weather and by not mechanically disturbing the soil structure. Instead, soil pores are naturally opened up by the action of microorganisms and roots, allowing water infiltration and aeration, and creating good soil conditions in which crop roots can develop. This way, soil productivity is increased.
Farmers see the good results of Regenerative Agriculture from MOOF. They also learn and see the positive changes from other farmers who already adopted Regenerative Agriculture earlier. MOOF encourages farmer-to-farmers extension services.
Is the produce of the smallholder farms going to local markets and communities?
The produce of smallholder farmers goes to local and international markets, depending on the categories of produce. Maize, ordinary beans, tomatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions Irish potatoes are generally for local markets. Whereas high value fruits and vegetables are for international markets such as fine beans, sugar snaps, gourgettes, salads, herbs and spices. Smallholder farmers are contracted as out-growers by large agricultural companies to produce fresh vegetables and fruits for their export markets.
Are there other problems Kenyan farmers are facing?
Farmers are facing huge problems in meeting their household livelihood demands and many live below the poverty line. Being weak, poor and often illiterate, the smallholder farmer has not much bargaining power and lacks access to information on how to market their produce. Most of the produce is sold through middlemen and brokers and much food is lost through long and slow trading chains with many small players (and no cold storage infrastructure). There is no traceability, transparency or accountability within the food supply chains and the farmer is at the mercy of a large and opaque soup of players in which the farmer's wellbeing and the 'healthy food for all' idea is not a priority. These are just a few of many problems.
Is it difficult to do what you do in Kenya?
No, it is not difficult to promote Regenerative Organic Agriculture in Kenya among smallholder farmers in Kenya. I'm getting a lot of positive feedback. Farmers are looking up to MOOF to receive Regenerative Agriculture solutions.
But MOOF lacks the capacity and funding to achieve this goal, the government does not fund Regenerative Agriculture in Kenya.
Now we are in the process to helping farmers to move on from purely subsistence farming to more innovative and sustainable agrobusiness systems through our Kikapu Organic vegetables initiative. This will help us to generate funds to support MOOF operations and create a safe and healthy food production system within a transparent network of smallholder farmers, processors and aggregators (MOOF) and customers.
Are there more Kenyan agronomists having a positive impact? Do you notice that awareness is growing?
Yes, more agronomists in Kenya are looking out for agricultural crop production systems with reduced synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, aiming at achieving minimum pesticide residue levels. The farmers produce to comply with the Global G.A.P. Certification (GAP), Organic Certification (NOP and EU markets).
There is growing awareness of food produced through regenerative agriculture in the local middle-class population, the export markets and the vulnerable local communities. They are all looking for safe and healthy foods, because lifestyle diseases are on the rise, e.g. cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. People want to know where their food is coming from, how it was produced, what the impacts on the environment are. Logically, they also want this healthy and sustainable food to be reasonably priced. MOOF promotes food traceability, transparency, accountability, continuity and high-quality farm produce for both local and international markets.
Are the objectives of MOOF-Africa about farming alone?
No, the aim of the organization goes well beyond farming. We want to achieve the sustainable development goals by addressing the broader challenges of food and malnutrition insecurity and alleviate poverty. This also involves empowerment of women. The MOOF environment provides a safe, friendly and comfortable working atmosphere for many women, youth and single mothers, as opposed to the closed hot greenhouse structures where cut-flowers are grown and in which they are exposure to pesticide fumes, harmful for pregnant women and babies.
Peter, your work is admirable and we hope your ideas and knowledge will spread across the country. How can we contribute?
MOOF-Africa needs funds and partners to keep the operations going. You can visit the website, and go to the partners page and do a donation. We are crowd fundraising for our local Initiative through the Givesendgo site launched at the end of May 2022. The Link: https://www.givesendgo.com/G3AKK.
Your donation goes directly to purchasing infrastructure such as produce refrigeration, storage and motorized delivery carts, read more by clicking on the link. If you are in Kenya, do visit us!