How cone gardening is changing lives of women and infants in Turkana

It is a health requirement that pregnant and breastfeeding mothers have sufficient food to improve their milk and in turn enhance the nutrition of infants and children nutrition from an early age.

Breast milk is considered a superlative food for infants because it is harmless, fresh and contains vital antibodies that help protect them against common childhood illnesses. It also has sufficient nutrients for a child’s effective development.

But for women in rural Turkana, getting a decent meal is challenging and lack of it has been blamed for widespread malnutrition among children and mothers.

The women are too undernourished to produce breast milk. The county is one of Kenya’s most food-stressed regions, experiencing recurrent drought that renders households food-insecure.

Many villagers had established kitchen gardens for a steady supply of vegetables, but with the erratic weather patterns many dried up, forcing them to seek food from vendors at exorbitant prices.

And now residents have a ray of hope following the introduction of a new farming technology – cone gardens – that will help them have a steady supply of vegetables and other food crops and improve their nutrition.

A cone garden is one that resembles a cone, an ice cream holder.

It involves arranging soil in a conical shape above the ground to create more space for crop growing.

Plastic containers or heavy polythene sheets are used to make cones.

Water is supplied from boreholes in villages and fed to the gardens through reverse tanks by drip pipes that are laid on the cones. A 200-litre tank feeds a garden – five cones – for a week. It costs Sh6,500 to set up one conical garden.

Elizabeth Erupe, a mother of three in Katilu village, is thrilled by the new gardening technology.

“I have only seen such gardens in Lodwar. We have been taught how to manage these gardens and I am confident that it will solve our vegetable problem and generally improve our diet,” she said.

“Enough food means that my children, especially those suckling, will get sufficient milk.”

The family, she said, had not enjoyed a meal with vegetables for a long time because of the lack of water that saw their kitchen gardens dry up.

“Cone gardens ensure we have a steady supply of vegetables because they come with storage tanks and irrigation pipes fitted onto them,” she said.

“The irrigation system mirrors that of drip irrigation, where water slowly drops on the root of the plants. This is economical utilisation of water, especially in water-stressed areas like Turkana.”

The cone gardens are highly productive compared with traditional kitchen gardens, because there is a high concentration of nutrients and losses are minimal.

The cone layers also allow crop diversification and an array of vegetables, such as spinach, cowpeas and carrots, can be grown in its different layers.

Feed pregnant women

Once fenced, the gardens are easy to manage as they require minimal gardening time after planting.

The new technology is the initiative of PanAfricare’s IMPACT Programme with funding from the Bayer Fund. Home cone gardens have been set up to support 200 women across Turkana County and are expected to increase the availability and consumption of diversified diets.

Among the areas that will benefit from cone gardens are Namakat, Katilu, Nadapal, Nabuin, Loroo, Loregum, Nagis, Nameyana, Lomil, Lopur, Korinyang', Kagitanikori, Nakabosan and Kang'akimak.

Locals have embraced the con gardens and have learnt how to feed pregnant women, breastfeeding women, children under the age of six months and those six to 59 months.

Mrs Silvia Asurot, from Natuntun village, noted that the gardens have been essential in providing vegetables to mothers and the majority of locals now enjoy improved diets.

“Our garden is so beautiful. It was set up almost two months ago and you can see how it has grown. We have spinach, cowpeas and kales,” she said.

“We used to buy vegetables, which were also hard to find. Now we have a vegetable garden and we can sell the surplus.”

Mrs Asurot, who is also a community health volunteer, noted that with increased access to diverse diets, children and adults will be healthier as the main cause of health problems in her village is malnutrition caused by lack of food.

She said malnutrition in expectant women leads to complications such as obstructed labour, severe anaemia and postpartum haemorrhage (heavy bleeding) that increase the risk of infant mortality and maternal deaths.

“Most women here in Namakat had kitchen gardens that unfortunately dried up because of the prolonged lack of rain in the area,” said Mrs Esther Ajikon, from Namakat Village.

The number of people who can afford balanced diets in the areas, she said, had dropped due to the increase in prices of basic commodities such as vegetables.

“The drought has not only decimated home gardens but also the expansive rain-fed farms that would usually provide a lifeline to the communities during the lean period,” she said.

A 2018 household budget survey showed that Turkana was the poorest county in Kenya at 79.4 percent poverty rate, compared with the national average of 31.6 percent.

A report from the Kenya Food and Nutrition Situation Seasonal Assessment in March 2019 indicated that 54,264 children under five years in Turkana were suffering from acute malnutrition with another 14,000 severely malnourished.

It also said that the nutrition situation in Turkana was at a critical stage, with a Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) level among infants and young children falling in the range of 15.0-29.9 per cent.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends malnutrition levels of less than 5 percent, and GAM of more than 10 percent indicates an emergency.

PanAfricare health and nutrition specialist Kassim Lupao said different categories of people require different amounts of food to remain healthy.

“A healthy adult requires three meals while pregnant and lactating women require up to four meals with snacks in between daily. A child’s age usually dictates the frequency of feeding and the amount,” he said.

The IMPACT programme, he said, seeks to reduce the high rates of malnutrition in Turkana through interventions that significantly improve nutrition outcomes for pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and young children below five years and in turn improve food security and resilience for entire households.