Category Archives: agroforestry

Agro-ecology Explained

This week there was a Webicafe session arranged by the Route to Food Initiative on Agro-ecology. Route to Food has championed a petition in Kenya’s Parliament calling for the removal of harmful chemical pesticides that are sold in the country.

The session featured two experts; Dr David Amudavi of the Biovision Africa Trust and Nicholas Syano of the Drylands Natural Resources Centre (DNRC). Biovision Africa works with smallholder farmers in 13 counties to disseminate useful and practical scientific information through various channels, and they also have a program with the African Union working with 35 partners in 9 countries. The DNRC works with 800 farmers in Makueni county, training them on and sustainable agricultural practices such as indigenous plants and rainwater harvesting.

The organizations are all trying to ensure farmers can work with nature to achieve food security. This is at a time small scale farmers, who produce most food for the country, are most affected by climate change and get the least support from the Government.

Excerpts:

  • Agro-ecology is not a new concept. Agro-ecology is as old as agriculture. It borrows a lot from indigenous knowledge of agricultural practices, and it is only the term that is new.
  • Agro-ecology is not organic farming. Indeed, organic is just one of the ways in which farmers can apply agro-ecology practices, which all seek to promote the use of alternatives such as minimum tillage, conservation agriculture, crop-rotation, manure, inter-cropping, mulching, permaculture, agroforestry, and organic – that can all improve soil health and fertility through less, or no, use of chemical inputs in food production.
  • Agro-ecology as a science looks at how plants and animals get manipulated by man to stimulate production and consumption. There is a balance in the interaction of plants, animals and humans – and anything harmful to any of the three, or the environment, is not acceptable in agro-ecology.
  • Agro-ecology means food security: If you compare communities that rely on agro-ecology and those on monoculture, the ones that engage in diversified farming are more resilient to economic shocks – and governments should direct more research there to ensure food security and sustainable agriculture.
  • Challenges include low awareness and funding. Agro-economy can feed the nation., but agriculture gets a tiny share of the national budget devoted to research funding and even smaller for agro-ecology (estimated 2% of agricultural funding). Currently, most-research funding goes to mono-culture, industrial-based, crop farming that is also supported by political voices. This is compounded further by a lack of data on the uptake of agro-ecology. as well as people who can write well about agro-ecology.
  • In agro-ecology, if you plant trees, grow as many varieties of trees. In Makueni, DNRC has re-planted trees that had vanished – lost varieties of fruit, dry land species and nitrogen-fixing trees. They also plant acacia that grows very fast and is useful for honey farming and charcoal. Individual farmers bring in their small honey harvests and the organization sells them as a collective and share the money out. They also make green charcoal in a special kiln using pruned acacia wood. Over the last decade, DNRC has planted Moringa trees – and with the outbreak of COVID this year, they have seen great demand for Moringa seedlings, oil and powder.
  • One good agro-ecology practice is to have African farmers use seeds adapted to local conditions. These can be sold, re-used, and exchanged while avoiding some monopoly seed laws that restrict what farmers can do with their seeds and multinational intellectual property disputes.

Trees: a great investment

Kenya has a forest cover estimated at 1.7% and shrinking. Yet, tree planting is actually a great investment opportunity that has remained under-appreciated in many parts of the country.

Market
Depending on how you space the tree seedlings at planting and when you harvest the trees, there is a market for them. After 3 -4 years, you can harvest and sell the trees at 1 – – 4,000 shillings each for firewood or from 5 – 8 years, you can sell them off at 6,000 shillings per tree for poles. This can translate to profits of between 1 million and 6 million shillings per acre ($13,000 – $80,000 per acre) all from an initial crop of tree seedlings that can be bought for about 10 shillings each. One also has to factor in the opportunity cost of not growing maize or other cash/food crops over the years on the land, but these tend to have high annual production costs. Also, one advantage of trees is that they can be planted on undesirable or uncultivated land.

Major buyers of trees include tea factories (who use firewood to process tea leaves), Kenya Power & Lighting Company, East African Cables, Telkom (for poles), and numerous saw millers and local wood vendors.

Dangers:
Two main ones are fire and pests/disease which can wipe out a mature crop of trees. Also one must also protect land from squatters, who may destroy trees for firewood, or to build homes in what they consider to be “unoccupied forest” land, or whose grazing animals may eat young tree seedlings.

Science
Numerous advances have been made in research to speed up tree growth, and new fast-growing hybrids of trees from South Africa and Australia can be easily obtained. Some of the trees being planted around the country by enterprising land owners include Pinus, cypress eucalyptus grandis, and blue gum.

the Future
One farmer told me that he has no worries about funding his kids university education in ten years time and even recommended that parents should plant one acre of trees per child to cater for the cost of their upbringing and education.