Stepping back, taking a look and beginning with an open mind…to rehabilitate degraded soils of western Kenya

by Abigael Nekesa Otinga, Kenya, ELP 2015
Written on August 9, 2015.

When I received my ELP course invitation letter, I was elated and for obvious reasons. Firstly, I was going to America….guys, America! Secondly, I was attending one of the most distinguished universities of time. Thirdly, I would meet experts from all over the world that were in their own capacities environmental leaders championing sustainable management of the environment.

The ELP course has been a great eye opener. After years of soil science, this was a beautiful and welcomed change. The courses ranged from Climate Change, Communications, Food, Biotechnology, and Agriculture, Water, Biodiversity, and Conservation, Collaborative Leadership for Sustainable change to Marketing, CSR and Enterprise Facilitation to mention just a few. The courses were delivered by highly experienced professionals and distinguished scholars, some of whom are world award leaders in their academic fields. One particularly interesting one (interesting with me because it resonates with what I do) was the talk by Dr. Ernesto Sirolli stemming from his worldwide known Ted Talk “Shut up and listen!” Dr. Sirolli emphasizes the fact that if you want to assist a community, you have to shut up and listen to them. According to Dr. Sirroli, there are many smart people in the communities who are entrepreneurs and this potential should be tapped not by telling them what to do but by listening to the ideas they have and then giving them knowledge and helping them develop their ideas. Dr Sirolli quoted from the book Small is Beautiful, by Ernst Friedrich Schumacker, that in economic development principles, two principles are a must. First, respect the people and second, if people do not push to help, leave them alone. This to me was very powerful because many times we walk into a community “uninvited” with our projects do our work, walk out after completion of the project and when you go back, there is absolutely no impact. According to Dr. Sirolli, as an entrepreneur or aspiring entrepreneur, you must have three things working well: 1) The product that you want to sell has to be fantastic; 2) You have to have fantastic marketing and 3) tremendous financial management. And he rightly says that not one person can do these three things together. And so Dr. Sirolli’s advice for those helping communities is to advise the aspiring entrepreneurs to have at least three people with the above-mentioned qualifications from the start. He emphasizes that no company or business in the world was started by just one person! “The future of every community lies in capturing the passion, energy and imagination of its own people,” says Dr. Ernesto Sirolli. We cannot afford to do the same things in the same way; we have to change the status quo!

My concern has always been about the management of our degraded soils in a sustainable way. From an environmental standpoint, this is actually possible, a lesson I learned during one of the hotly debated issues of whether agroecology can feed the world. You see, in small-scale farming where mechanization is not an option and land is scarce, agroecology is the next best alternative. These farmers have to till their fields to provide their families with food, education and medical supplies. It therefore means that if the farmers have to meet all these needs, then the agriculture here has to be intensive.

In Kenya, maize is the staple and many farmers depend on this crop for their livelihoods. This crop is largely produced by about 3.5 million small-scale farmers producing approximately 75% of the crop. The remaining 25% is produced by large-scale farmers. Since Kenya’s independence (1963), farmers have cropped maize in the mid and highlands whose yields have continued to decline. The maize crop has been bogged by numerous problems, from the 2008 energy crisis (affecting market prices, fertilizer inputs, etc.) to the most recent being the maize lethal necrotic disease that caused 10-100% losses. It is rain fed and a very nutrient-demanding crop that is highly dependent on external fertilizer inputs in conventional agriculture. However, some case studies have shown that conventional agriculture, i.e. maximizing the use of fertilizers in smallholder farming systems, is not enough. Wairegi and Asten (2011) echoed this sentiment in their study on the use of fertilizer in East Africa. They showed that in East Africa, the use of fertilizers on maize was not economically feasible. In fact, these authors discouraged the high use of fertilizers on the commonly cropped maize in the region citing unprofitability.

I work on a project that seeks to rehabilitate degraded soils of western Kenya in small holding farms that are involved in crop-livestock integrated systems. Soils in this region are degraded and respond little to application of fertilizers. The main factors of soil degradation include loss of nutrients (ions) adsorption sites, especially in clay-poor soils, micronutrients exhaustion, structural collapse and low water retention. Further, long time use of these soils with little organic material addition has depleted the soil of organic carbon. Such soils undermine the resilience of food systems and livelihoods to climate variability and population pressure. As mentioned above, highly degraded soils may even become poor-responsive to conventional mineral fertilizers (N, P, K) and in this region, farmers are concerned that the soils that were productive some years back now hardly produce enough to feed them. Rehabilitating such soils entails building up organic matter that would provide adsorption sites for nutrients and water. These small-scale farmers do not have the luxury of leaving their fields fallow to build up organic matter over time. They depend on the fields every year and every day for their livelihoods. Agroeclogy could be an alternative, and in this case, the priority would be in-situ and/or ex-situ additions of materials that restore the depleted soil carbon that would provide the skeleton needed to hold nutrients and water that are very high in demand by these soils. The addition of organic matter and sustainably keeping it in the system through agroecology would thus be a first in managing these soils in a sustainable way. Indeed, agroecology is both labor and knowledge intensive but if practiced well, the rewards are long lasting as was observed on Rene Zazueta’s farm during the ELP training.

For the smallholder farmers in this region, it is not about a competition between biotechnology and agreocology. For us, the pertinent issue is can we feed, clothe, and educate our children on a less than two ha piece of farm? Can we still be able to do this amidst the threats of climate change? Are our food systems resilient enough? And perhaps combining a little bit of everything in the most appropriate way to make sure that we achieve this could be the forefront on our agenda. A really stimulating talk given by Prof. Miguel Altieri was enlightening. The most important thing for such farmers is for them to be food secure. The poverty cycle is broken once this is achieved. During our ELP course, Prof. Altieri stated that if one is food secure, apart from having food throughout the year, they could also sell their labor. And since they are food secure, they can actually negotiate and the chances of being paid less for their labor are low.

Before the course, I had two pressing questions. The first is: in on-farm experiments, how do we get farmers and extension officers interested in work? Now this question has arisen from the so commonly referred notion of “farmer fatigue.” Farmers see many researchers and NGOs come and go, sometimes with different issues, sometimes with the same issue. They have become tired of the researcher’s and NGO’s ideologies…they have become tired of being told what to do. In fact, they actually do not see the benefit of experimental research projects for them. This was answered by Dr. Sirolli’s talk, “Shut up and Listen!” From his stimulating talk, I found that we have been approaching the issue in a completely different way and the key question is, “Did these smallholder farmers invite you?” If they didn’t, then you will spend your time and money doing whatever brought you to that region and once you have packed and left, they would go back to their own systems. The lesson is “shut up and listen!” Let them own the process.

otinga1 otinga2

Rene Zazueta on his farm in Berkeley- Due to the characteristic of diversity, agroecology can indeed nourish the world!!

My second most pressing question was how to involve stakeholders in sustainable soil management, especially in intensely cropped lands where available land for agriculture is a challenge. Now to answer this question, I got insights from Susan Carpenter’s presentation on negotiation. In the negotiation presentation, I learned that the most important thing is to make all the stakeholders understand their benefits of what you are working with, i.e. what is their stake.

I have successfully completed the course (now I am a certified environmental leader!!!) and now I have more questions than answers. However, with the skills acquired during this course, I know I will make a difference, taking one tiny step after the other to rehabilitate the degraded soils of western Kenya!


Wairegi, L.W., van Asten, P., 2011. Exploring the scope of fertilizer use in the East African region. Challenges and opportunities for agricultural intensification of the humid highlands of sub-Saharan Africa (CIALCA) International Conference, 24-27th October, 2011, Kigali, Rwanda.

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