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Postcard from Kenya - The hunger trap

14 December 2012

Postcard from Kenya - The hunger trap

Photo: a Kitui farmer uses mulch to line zai pits built with the help of Farm Africa.

By Jonathan Finighan

This may seem unremarkable, but Mwangangi is the 64th farmer I’m meeting in Kitui. I have seen a lot of farms. But unlike the others, this farmer hasn’t tilled manure into the soil to help fertilize it.

I see more signs that the farm hasn’t been tended for a while. We find 40 well-made zai pits (shallow pits dug into the soil to capture water) but the corn seedlings planted inside are dwarfed by fleshy weeds. And the last few nights of heavy rain are digging gullies through Mwangangi’s fields, the surface of the soil is reduced to tiny rocks and pebbles as the topsoil washes away.

This farm looks abandoned, as if somebody left in a hurry.

Mwangangi isn’t here. His wife tells me he has gone to Nuu town. We get back on the motorbike and find him at the tiny petrol station fixing a puncture on a very bald car tyre. Mwangangi tells us that he ran out of corn last week, so he has come to town to find work. He has a lot of work to do on the farm to prepare for the coming rains, but he said, “When your children are hungry you just have to do something about it.”

Like every farmer I’ve met in Kitui County over the last two months, Mwangangi and his wife make enormous sacrifices for their future. Recently they sold their bulls so that their children could stay in school. Without bulls, they have to till the farm by hand, and that’s why we saw all the manure on top of the soil.

Mwangangi’s situation is an example of a hunger trap: a vicious cycle where the need to feed your family today makes it almost impossible for you to invest money and energy in your farm so you can get a good harvest and feed your family next year.

Mwangangi tells us that Farm Africa’s project has really helped them: the only food he and his wife harvested this year came from the zai pits introduced by Farm Africa – the poor rainfall spoiled everything else. They also used our training to terrace part of their farm and stop soil erosion.

Zai pits and terraces are the kind of “investments” in farms that help farmers like Mwangangi to get out of this hunger trap, by improving their yields and giving them more food.

- Jonathan Finighan is an Evaluation Researcher at Farm Africa. He recently spent three months in Kitui, Kenya assessing the impact of Farm Africa's climate-resilient farming project.

Read recent post cards from our series, including Jonathan’s postcard from Kitui.

Find out more about our climate-resilient farming project.