Irrigation farming is gaining popularity in pastoralist counties that have experienced recurrent famine as a result of drought, with new and revived schemes offering enhanced food security and incomes for residents.
The semi-arid counties of West Pokot, Turkana, Samburu and Elgeyo Marakwet are turning into highly productive agribusiness hubs as hundreds of herders diversify into crop production through irrigation schemes along the Kerio Valley and other water sources in the region.
Most of the irrigation projects meant to enhance food security and value addition are set to be modernised after the government allocated Sh1.5 billion in the current fiscal year to the Small Scale Irrigation and Value Addition Project.
It has further set aside Sh620 million for the Food Security and Crop Diversification Project.
According to the National Irrigation Board (NIB), Kenya’s irrigation farming potential is estimated at 1.3 million hectares.
However, only 162,000 hectares or 12 percent has been developed to boost food security.
Erratic weather due to climate change has made rain-fed agriculture and livestock farming less viable for residents, leaving crop production under drip irrigation schemes as the only alternative means to survival.
“Although the soil in most parts of West Pokot is fertile, dependence on the rain-fed farming system has precluded agriculture as an alternative food source,” said Daimo Chetotum, a farmer in West Pokot.
A farmer at Katilu Irrigation Scheme. The National Irrigation Authority handed over 1,500 acres of rehabilitated land to farmers in Katilu, Turkana County, for irrigation farming.
Consequently, the NIB has launched feasibility studies on irrigation schemes in the Kerio Valley region to rehabilitate stalled schemes and initiate new ones to motivate pastoralists to diversify to crop production as an alternative source of food and income generation.
Projects that are to benefit from the plan include Weiwei Irrigation Scheme in West Pokot, Arror and Tot in Elgeyo Marakwet.
Three years ago, the government also allocated more than Sh100 million for irrigation projects in Turkana County.
Katilu irrigation project where 650 hectares of land would be used for crop farming to boost food production among the locals received Sh45 million.
Daniel Kariuki Waweru (left), Operations Manager at Katilu Irrigation Scheme in Turkana South, Turkana County, which is under the National Irrigation Board, talks to mzee Joseph Ata Apokon, at his plot where he planted sorghum three years ago.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) started the project in 1963 but stalled due to mismanagement and insecurity due to recurrent cattle rustling raids in the area.
The Treasury allocated another Sh20 million for the NIB to establish Lotubae Irrigation Scheme in Turkana East, which also serves the East Baringo sub-county.
An additional Sh38 million was allocated to the Nakwomoru irrigation project downstream of Turkwel Gorge.
The irrigation scheme acts as a buffer zone between the Pokot and Turkana communities, but it also stalled due to cattle rustling activities.
Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) managing director Sammy Naporos said an additional Sh59 million would be pumped into the Lomut irrigation project in West Pokot to cover 800 acres.
“More than 1,200 families will benefit from the project by providing food security and sustainable income generation to communities that have experienced recurrent food shortages,” said Mr Naporos.
The government in collaboration with an Italian firm launched the Sh1.2 billion Weiwei Integrated Development Project Phase III last September through the agency in which more than 325 acres have been put under irrigation.
Currently, farmers use gravitational water from River Weiwei to irrigate their crops during the dry season.
More than 600 pastoralist families invested in subsistence and cash crop farming, earning more than Sh40 million from last season’s harvest.
The farmers in the Weiwei and Lomut irrigation schemes source their farm inputs from Kenya Seed Company on loans, which they repay after harvesting and selling the produce.
In 2016, farmers tilling about 275 acres in Weiwei processed more than 1,000 tonnes of maize seeds to the Kenya Seed company.
According to Weiwei Farmers Association chairperson Mark Meut, farmers at the scheme are on course to harvest 1.2 million kilogrammes of maize this season, with an estimated value of between Sh70–Sh100 million.
Farmers at the scheme are, however, facing challenges of crop diseases, fall armyworms and outdated farming techniques.
“We need extension officers in this area, and farm inputs are expensive. The county government should allocate money to buy inputs for farmers so that we can get more yields,” said Mr Meut.
At the Lomut scheme, 800 acres along River Lomut have been set aside for irrigation agriculture following the completion of the project in May.
The first phase comprises 200 acres catering for 80 families while the 600-acre phase two will be completed this month.
The KVDA banks on the irrigation scheme for farmers to diversify food crops and plant more in a year, boosting their income and food security.
The farmers aim to produce tomatoes, mangoes, watermelon and bananas to supply markets as Chesegon, Masol and Muino in West Pokot.
In Elgeyo Marakwet, irrigation schemes have been initiated in Arror, Chepkum and Tot in Marakwet East, while a 130-acre irrigation scheme to benefit 150 farmers has been set up in Marakwet West.
These schemes are under sorghum, finger millet, cassava, watermelon, bananas, pawpaw among other food crops.
The KVDA now plans to equip farmers in the region with modern crop production techniques to realise higher yields, largely through partnerships with other State agencies in the agricultural sector.
Farmers’ groups are also partnering with financial institutions and international development organisations to roll out training targeting the agribusiness sector so that their members can monetise their produce.
The training is expected to equip farmers with skills to market their produce and expand reach in larger urban centres, giving them higher profits that can be ploughed back into expanding their farming enterprises.