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An African success story.

In the Machakos district of south-eastern Kenya, bananas, coffee, and maize grow thick on terraces that climb the sloping land like many staircases. Standing in cool, green contrast to the parched, scrub vegetation that spreads beyond the horizon, and across much of Kenya, the terraces of Machakos make the region more than just an aesthetic exception; it is an economic one too. With approximately 70 percent of its arable land terraced, the region has produced one of Africa's best records of soil and water conservation, and its growth in agricultural output has even outpaced its high population growth rate of 3 percent.

A look at the fields in Machakos gives the impression that the area has always been productive and well managed. But that is not the case. At the beginning of the century, colonial British farmers established large coffee and sisal plantations that attracted migrant laborers from surrounding villages. As the number of people and livestock in the area grew, so did the pressures on the land, and the consequences of the migrant influx began to take their toll. By the early 1930s, Machakos was overgrazed, denuded, and in trouble. Agricultural productivity was plummeting and soil was eroding at rates as high as 13 tons per acre annually.

In response, the colonial government in Nairobi imposed a mandatory reconditioning program that forced villagers to reduce their herds of livestock, fence off extremely degraded land to allow "natural healing," and construct terraces for growing crops. At first, little progress was made because the farmers despised and resisted the coercive program. During the mid-1940s, the reconditioning activities gained momentum when a local leader, Chief Mutinda, imposed a fine of two bulls on any farmer who cultivated un-terraced land.

But soil conservation efforts in Machakos languished when men left home to fight the colonial forces during Kenya's struggle for independence from British rule in the 1950s, and during the turbulent resettlement period of the 1960s.

Once life returned to normal, the people of Machakos, the Akamba, were eager to reverse the deteriorating condition of their land. In 1974, Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture established the National Soil and Water Conservation Project, with support from the Swedish International Development Agency. The Soil and Water officials worked closely with the Akamba, treating them as partners and successfully persuading them to restart the construction of terraces. The Swedish agency offered additional incentives by creating a farmers' training program, providing tools and establishing tree nurseries.

Terraces are ingeniously simple but hard to build. A farmer begins by digging a trench perpendicular to the fall line, then throws the soil up the slope to form a solid ridge, hence the Akamba name "fanya juu," which translates "do upwards." The terraces even out as shifting soils build up behind the ridge. Rain water seeps into the soil rather than running down the slope, making better use of the region's sparse precipitation. To stabilize the soil and prevent the ridges from collapsing, farmers plant grass on top of the ridges.the grass then provides fodder for livestock.

In building their terraces, the Akamba rediscovered an ancient technology that has enabled subsistence farmers to make poor land productive in scattered locations from the Philippines to the Andes. A 1988 study by Eva Holmgren and Gunilla Johansson of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that corn and bean yields were 33 percent and 16 percent higher, respectively, on terraced versus unterraced land. In addition, the terraces have helped to reduce the siltation of waterways, which extends the lifetime of reservoirs in the area.

Machakos farmers are taking other steps to increase the productivity and health of their land. They have begun using manure in place of more expensive chemical fertilizer because it both enriches the soil and helps hold it in place. Recognizing that the health of their livestock is more important than the quantity, they are thinning their herds of livestock, making prudent decisions to graze only the few that their land can support. As the supply of grazing land shrinks through conversion to crops, or through retirement from overgrazing, the need to thin herds becomes even more pressing.

Without the help of heavy machinery, it would take one farmer approximately two years to construct terraces on a five-acre plot. But Machakos is densely populated, and there are plenty of helping hands. The Akamba have organized into self-help groups known as "mwethya." Unified by the common vision of increased food security and a higher standard of living, the mwethya work on each other's fields on a rotating basis. When first formed in the 1920s, they consisted of men and women who belonged to the same clan, and performed services ranging from helping families recover from disasters to building houses and pitching in with farming tasks. During the years of political turmoil, the groups disintegrated - and did not reassemble until after 1963, when Kenya received its independence from the British government.

In recent years, the composition of the mwethya has changed as village men have left for the cities in search of jobs. Today, a typical group is composed of 25 to 70 women who reside in the same neighborhood. In most groups, the only qualification for membership is a willingness to participate in communal work. The groups have played a central role in combatting the forces of land degradation, and are currently the most active of the local institutions. The project's success - primarily fueled by the enthusiasm and commitment of women - is exemplary of an economic potential among women that often remains ignored and unrecognized throughout the world.

The conservation project has not been without its drawbacks. Overgrazing is still prevalent, and stricter measures are required to curb the problem. And although the Akamba have made great strides in conserving their soil and water, erosion rates are still relatively high during the harvesting and plowing months, when terrace construction and maintenance do not receive adequate attention.

But despite the low rainfall, the fragile soils, and the growing human and livestock populations that have left so much of Sub-Saharan Africa impoverished, the Akamba women have successfully managed to transform their scrubby and denuded homeland into an agriculturally productive area. The residents of Machakos district have set a significant example for Africa. They have made their accomplishments without the importation of complex and costly technologies, succeeding instead with simple tools, local resources, and their own communal labor.
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Title Annotation:farming and conservation
Author:Chege, Nancy
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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