Under the blistering afternoon sun, Lucina Tongore walks through a tree nursery watering seedlings.
“Those mango seedlings at the corner have already been booked,” says Tongore who leads a women’s self-help group, adding that ever since the group was taught about farming potatoes, cassava and tissue culture bananas, their households have become more food-secure.
The semi-arid West Pokot County is known for pastoralism and many locals have lost their herds to vicious cattle rustlers and prolonged drought before.
The women’s group started growing the crops last year, and their success has attracted interest from other residents, who also want to take up farming.
“Food security is a big challenge here. We decided to grow fruit trees and plant drought-resistant crops like cassava to boost our resilience,” says Tongore, adding that they got technical assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and the Anglican Development Services (ADS).
Kalro offered the sweet potato vines and cassava stems which the group multiplied and distributed amongst the members.
The sweet potatoes include both the yellow and orange fleshed varieties which they boil, roast or use to make chips.
Every member of the group is encouraged to grow the crops in her own farm.
When other locals showed interest, the group set up the tree nursery with grafted mango, pawpaw, and tissue culture seedlings, for sale.
Their main challenge was access to water for their tree nursery and the fact that the tissue culture bananas had to come from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in the outskirts of Nairobi.
The first problem was solved by a nursery shade and water tank donated by Bayer East Africa, while for the second problem, the women decided to raise the cost of the seedlings to cover their costs and shield them from loss.
In Markit, another part of West Pokot, young men are growing cabbage and sukuma wiki.
They started farming in 2014, with bamboo and other tree seedlings in a greenhouse.
The 14-member youth group grows the Shangi variety which does well in the region, planting the cabbages on a leased three-quarter acre farm, which yields 19,000 cabbage heads.
Joshua Ouko, a project coordinator at ADS, one of the organisations working with the county government to promote agriculture in the region, says that human encroachment on grazing fields, frequent drought and cattle rustling have made pastoralism less attractive, and brought about the need for alternatives.
“We are looking at a number of activities such as horticulture, livestock husbandry, poultry and fish farming as an alternative to pastoralism,” he said, adding that fish farming is an emerging activity in the area that would boost nutrition and income for residents.
County Executive for Agriculture and Irrigation Jeffery Lepale, said that as farming picks up, the county government is investing in cold storage to minimise post-harvest losses, especially because marketing is still a challenge for most farmers.
“We are putting up an onion store that can serve up to 1,000 onion farmers and a cold storage facility for potatoes,” he said.
The potato store will have a capacity of 300,000 kilogrammes to handle the county’s potato production which ranges between 200,000 kilos and 250,000 kilos.
“We also intend to come up with a mini-processing plant to add value to our potatoes.
“We have earmarked different areas in the county for different farming activities.
“In some areas we are giving free coffee seedlings to encourage coffee farming,” he added.