CGIAR’s Ukama Ustawi Virtual Field Trip in Kenya a Major Stride

Why the Ukama Ustawi term? Ukama Ustawi is a bilingual word derived from Shona and Swahili. In Shona, Ukama refers to partnerships, and in Swahili, Ustawi means well-being and development. Collectively, they represent the initiative’s vision to achieve system-level development through innovative partnerships: “Together, we grow and develop,” a bulletin from the initiative affirms.


Despite the fact that Runyenjes Constituency or Sub-County (one of the four constituencies in Embu County and about 180 km from & to the North-East of Kenya’s Capital City, Nairobi), is Embu County’s grains (cereals) and pulses (legumes) basket, the area has gradually been facing drought challenges seen in unreliable and very short, unsustainable rain seasons.

The unpredictable weather and climate patterns have been attributed to climate change manifested mainly in global warming among other adverse signs and currently wreaking havoc in many parts of the world.

This has necessitated the need for remedial and strategic measures to make agriculture more climate-smart, sustainable, and more productive for better food security and improved livelihood for people. Notably, Embu County is one of the 47 Counties in the Kenyan Republic following the devolution of the country after the promulgation of the country’s 2010 Constitution.

Remarkably, the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), courtesy of its Embu Centre, has been working to empower farmers with information on how they can cope in agricultural systems that are climate smart and able to improve food production and farmers’ incomes. Kalro has also been providing helpful tips for reversing climate change.

 In these efforts, one of KALRO’s major partners is CGIAR (the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers OR Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) through its Ukama Ustawi project which has a mandate for diversification to empower small-holder maize farmers in five East & Southern Africa (ESA) region countries (given that the maize crop is a staple and very important food crop in the region).

The partnership informed the hosting of the Ukama Ustawi 2nd virtual field trip in Runyenjes Embu on November 3rd, 2023, which was preceded by the first virtual field trip in Malawi in April 2023.

Ukama Ustawi
Catherine Muriithi & Nkosi Phindiwe conducting the field trip discussions

The virtual field trip is an interactive activity held at a physical location and also streamed live to audiences in different parts of ESA and other regions of the world and is part of Ukama Ustawi’s innovative strategies.                                                                                                                                    

Ukama Ustawi diversification focuses on among other initiatives the mechanization of smallholder maize farmers and conservation agriculture as shown in KALRO’s Njoro Centre demonstration farm event that hosted farmers and various partners on October 27, 2023. In Embu County, however, the main focus was on conservation agriculture.

Presenters at the Embu Virtual & Physical field visit included Dr. Boaz Waswa, a soil scientist, Ukama Ustawi Lead in Kenya and program Coordinator for CIAT Africa (International Center for Tropical Agriculture); Dr. Alfred Micheni (an agronomist & Kalro Embu Centre Director); Catherine Muriithi (Kalro Embu senior research scientist); and Stephen Njeru Njagi (Embu County’s Agricultural Officer & working with Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture–MoA); Dr. Inga Jacobs-Mata, Initiative Lead for Ukama Ustawi and International Water Management Institute (IWMI)’s Director of Water, Growth and Inclusion; Nora Hauke-Louw (Ukama Ustawi Program Coordinator; and Nkosi Phindiwe, of Ukama Ustawi initiative & IWMI’s Communications & Knowledge Management Expert among others. The experts provided insightful, empowering, and interesting knowledge on conservation agriculture.   

Farmers Agnes Ndia (the ‘mother’ farmer on whose land the field trip was hosted in Runyenjes, Kathera Village & a member of the Kiamuka Group); Lorenshia Ruguru Kajoya of Kirongano, Gikuru, Runyenjes Sub-county; Lucy Njeri of Kiamugaka Women Mulching group and John Mureithi of Gichegeri, Manyatta Constituency, Embu, also shared interesting experiences in the journey to adopting and embracing conservation agriculture.

According to Dr Waswa, the focus on diversification of maize crop systems has been necessitated by the fact that the staple maize crop in ESA has proved very susceptible to climate change.

“There’s a need to adopt technology and diversification of the crop in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Uganda and we’re soon extending to Ethiopia. We work with farmers and partners such as KALRO to co-design technology. We consider the need for different seed varieties for different ecologies and thus design seeds that are drought–resistant and suitable for short-duration rains and even for areas prone to flooding. We try such technologies in farms in running cycles,” expounded Dr Waswa.

“We’re also looking at mechanization to remove drudgery in farming, especially for old farmers. Agricultural technology also proves attractive to youthful farmers. In the diversification too, we’re emphasizing the planting of many other crops in addition to maize such as beans, tubers such as the orange flesh sweet potatoes and cassava to provide for healthy diets with minerals such as iron, zinc, and vitamins,” he added.

Ukama Ustawi
Dr. Alfred Micheni in Dustcoat & 1st (L) Dr. Boaz Waswa

According to Dr Micheni, Kalro is mandated by the government to conduct research and develop technology for better food security in the country both in terms of quality and quantity and to improve farmers’ revenues and livelihoods.       

“We’re also responsible for protecting the environment and combating climate change and we partner with other research bodies, NGOs, and related agricultural firms among others to promote technology & innovation. We take such technology and innovation to farmers who validate it. Essentially, we are involved in adaptive research and work with all people involved in agriculture. We’re happy with our partners and donors such as CGIAR’s Ukama Ustawi who are helping us to attain crop diversification and conservation agriculture,” he added.  

He expounded that crop diversification has involved the planting of maize and beans i.e. cereals & legumes for better soil fertility and the introduction of other crops such as sweet potatoes and cassava and also the preservation of indigenous crops such as cowpeas that tend to be drought resistant and whose leaves provide good and nutritious vegetables not to mention the legumes they eventually provide, and more income for farmers.

Legumes such as beans are known to tap nitrogen from the atmosphere and then deposit it in soils for better fertility; this is among the measures in place for soil fertility management. Additionally, the use of organic manure and return of crop residue to farms and the use of organic manure and fertilizers, made using local technology are also being emphasized.

The Director who is in charge of the four counties neighboring Embu namely Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Tharaka Nthi, and Meru highlighted the three principles of conservation agriculture including minimal tillage of farms to ensure nil soil disturbance, reduced soil erosion, and preservation of soil micro-organisms; crops residue return to farms for better soil health and to protect the soils from direct sun rays & burn and consequent destruction of organic carbon which is good for enhancing micro-organisms growth & proliferation; and crops diversification is seen in crop rotation and/or intercropping that assures adequate and good quality harvests for home use and for selling.

“In our diversification initiative, we’re also involving women, men, and youth in agriculture. We’re happy that the Ukama Ustawi program is also already in four counties in Kenya including here in Meru and Nakuru among others promoting sustainable agriculture for better food security and enhanced farmers’ incomes,” Dr Micheni added.

Mureithi emphasized that crops in conservation agriculture must be planted in furrows and ridges with the furrows & ridges’ depth for maize being bigger than for beans for instance. “The furrows allow for penetration and retention of water and also better growth and proliferation of crop roots. Furrowing also helps in soil aeration. We’re also emphasizing mulching of the crops and soils for more water retention given the high temperatures and droughts we’re experiencing due to climate change,” she added.

According to her, most farmers in Embu are smallholders. “The land here is highly fragmented with the average size being less than an acre leading to low yields. The low yields challenge has been exacerbated by climate change seen in unreliable rains and prolonged droughts or at times excessive rains just for short periods or for a few days. Yet, we’re happy to be working with Ukama Ustawi in the last three seasons here in Embu,” Muriithi expounded.  

Ukama Ustawi
Dr. Boaz Waswa confers with the team conducting the trip

She explained that the project is in six wards in Embu with several ‘Mother” farms (these are the bigger farms that demonstrate and teach good conservation agricultural practices to ‘Baby’ farms) and 20 to 30 ‘Baby’ farms. “The Mother farms demonstrate the different technologies and innovations for use by the smaller ‘Baby’ farms. We’re partnering with agro-firms that sell drought-resistant maize to our farmers. We’re also encouraging the farmers to plant the ‘Nyota’ beans variety which is also drought-resistant and early maturity and also very rich in iron & zinc,” expounded Muriithi.

She gave the example of a young man who planted 1 kg of maize in his small plot in Gichegere ward, Embu County using the conservation agriculture tips. The man harvested 38 kg as per research findings which is evidence of the power of conservation agriculture.                                              

Farmers, here are also encouraged to space maize and beans at 50 cm (centimeters) between each alternate seed and alternate row. Intercropping with farmers planting 4 strips of maize and 4 strips of beans in alternate spaces is also encouraged; this is helping in fighting the effects of climate change.

“The 2020 short rains and 2023 long rains failed in this area due to drought but the farmers who had intercropped harvested at least one crop. Our partnership with the International Potato Centre (ICP) has led to the breeding of the Orange flesh sweet potato tuber variety which has beta-carotene nutrients. This is enhancing diversification and nutrition for our people. Moreover, we let farmers know that mulching is beneficial and important. We’re encouraging mulching with tree leaves and other vegetative matter such as grass,” Muriithi expounded.

Notably, Kalro has introduced the climate-smart Brachiaria grass varieties which suck CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) from the atmosphere and store the gas in its roots helping to fight global warming; these varieties are used both as livestock fodder and for mulching purposes. As aforementioned mulching decomposes gradually improving soil structure, profile, and fertility.

A farmer sharing her experience

The average land size for smallholder farmers in Embu is 1 acre. Before the adoption of conservation agriculture, 1 acre would produce just one bag of maize on average. With conservation agriculture, production in one acre has increased to between 1 ton and 4.1 tons.

Moreover, Kalro has partnered with the Kenya Metrological Department (MET) in the Kenya Agricultural Observatory Platform (KAOP) app to relay timely weather and climate information to farmers to help them prepare the land or take other measures such as using early maturity seed varieties to fight against unfavorable weather and climatic conditions. The app is downloadable on mobile phones for easy use by farmers.

On his part, Njagi confirmed that the virtual field tour farm site was in Runyenjes’ central ward. “Runyenjes is Embu County’s grain and pulses basket with maize as the leading cereal and with beans and cowpeas as the major pulses,” he revealed. According to him, Sorghum also does well in Mbeere North & South and in Kieni as well which are also in Embu County. “Given that agriculture has been devolved to county governments, we as the MoA partner with bodies such as Kalro, other government ministries & departments, donors, and friendly organizations such as Ukama Ustawi to improve agriculture for better food security and livelihoods,” he added.

“In the last 3 to 4 seasons, we have partnered with Kalro and Ukama Ustawi testing new innovations and technology and disseminating the same to farmers on the ground. We’re first engaging with ‘Mother’ farmers (demo farms) and later having the other farmers learning from the ‘Mother’ farmers,” Njagi explained.

 According to him, the MoA is also mandated to liaise with value chain partners for better access to farm inputs among other farmers’ needs. He appreciated the Ukama Ustawi program as very opportune; “the conservation agriculture & mechanization technologies have come at the right time seeing that we’re faced with climate change. The technology has helped to increase crop yield and cut costs since farmers don’t have to dig or plow whole farms but only prepare furrows and the exact ridges that have to receive the seeds. The making of furrows and ridges saves time and costs compared to traditional hoeing and plowing. Mulching that retains moisture in soils. Moreover, Ukama Ustawi has helped farmers in embracing digital technology,” Njagi added.

 Agricultural Technology Information Management Systems (TEAIMS) have helped in improving value chain operations and farmers in accessing easier, faster, and more secure payment solutions. “Overall, our partnership with Ukama Ustawi has improved productivity at farms and changed livelihoods. The commercial production of organic manures and fertilizers has not only created jobs but also helped in having better harvests and safety of crops harvests,” added Njagi.

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