Justus Ndemwa is sitting on an empty plastic water canister. He looks away. His voice is soft and faltering. “For five years the rains have failed,” he says.
Some days, the 72-year-old, who suffers from anaemia, eats only rice or beans. He is not alone. Now because of the high cost of food and the impacts of climate change, millions of Kenyans face hunger every day. As the situation persists, something, surely, has to change.
Ndemwa and his three children live in a brick and mud hut no larger than a double bed in a field a few miles from Kauwi town in Kitui County.
The landscape is sparse: the odd failed corn field, thorny scrub and patches of dry grass. The family lives largely off handouts from people in Kauwi. Ndemwa is waiting for cash transfers from the World Food Programme. Otherwise, he prays. “I pray so much,” he says, “more than five times a day.”
High numbers of people in Kenya have been experiencing hunger, partly because of food shortages and prices being far above their five-year average. In addition to the lack of supply, food price rises are also due to the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused labour shortages and constrained supply chains.
On top of this, the war between Russia and Ukraine thwarted fertiliser supplies. It also prompted countries to impose food export controls. Energy price volatility has also created problems for farmers globally.
In this choppy geopolitical context, some agribusinesses in Kenya are buffering farmers’ risks while maintaining food production. One of the largest exporters of green beans to Europe, Frigoken, for example, has for decades created contracts with each of the tens of thousands of smallholders growing the crops.
Well before the harvest, the company agrees on a pre-set price with each farmer for their beans, thereby assuring them a reliable market. Frigoken helps the farmers access inputs like fertiliser on a credit basis. It also exposes the growers to technical knowledge through training programmes delivered by extension workers. As such, both the farmers and the company boost their yields and income.
‘I wish my parents farmed this way’
In his lush plot in Muranga County, surrounded by banana and eucalyptus trees, Peter Joroge shares his success growing beans with Frigoken for the past decade: “In the beginning,” he says, “I would get 80 to 100 kg per unit annually. But it has gradually increased to 200 kg per unit. I wish my parents had farmed the way I do,” he adds, “because I would have gone to school for longer.”
As well as supporting them with growing cash crops, Frigoken also helps farmers produce staples such as maize for their own consumption. This strengthens smallholders’ household food security alongside their longer-term viability as food producers.
At the Frigoken processing factory in Nairobi, meanwhile, 85 per cent of the workforce is women. Staff receive decent pay, health care and pension plans. There’s even a crèche. Contrary to perceptions of corporate agribusinesses exploiting workers to maximise profits, Frigoken supports them and incurs their risk while delivering a commercial return.
Yet beyond the fallout of the pandemic and the Ukraine war, there’s another factor causing hunger in Kenya: climate change. According to data shared by the Kenyan meteorological department, average annual temperatures in Kitui County have risen by 1.9C over the past 40 years. That’s more than double the global average. Combine this heat with a prolonged lack of rainfall and no wonder crops are struggling to grow.
According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis covering the period between March and June 2023, there were 5.4 million “acutely food insecure” people in Kenya.
These people would often go a day or more without eating anything at all. The main cause was drought; in the worst areas, the rains had failed for at least four successive years. This is why the number of people facing such severe hunger had risen steadily since 2020.
In this desperate situation, farmers, technocrats and politicians must respond to environmental as well as financial challenges. Fortunately, some initiatives offer hope.
Rosemary Waweru is hoisting a four-metre-high stick into the foliage of a colossal avocado tree. Soon they begin to fall. Thump. Thump. In less than a minute, eight oval fruits have thudded to the ground. She gathers them into a pile, smiling. As large as ostrich eggs, their skins gleam emerald green.
The 62-year-old manages her own three-acre farm in Kiamuchwe, a village in Kirinyaga County. The countryside is dense with plots of maize, peas, barley and wheat as well as cash crops like avocados, mangoes and bananas.
Waweru is now crafting her own natural plant-based pesticide as well as a fertiliser made by fermenting chicken feathers in water. She has adopted these practices through the Maendeleo project, a pilot launched in 2022 as a collaboration between the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and Frigoken. In switching from chemical to organic, Waweru’s methods are improving her soil, plant and native species health.
“Regenerative agriculture is about giving back to the soil,” says Leigh Winowiecki, a soil scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF in Nairobi. “For far too long, we have been taking soil for granted. We need to think of soil as our bank account, we cannot continue to draw from it without giving back.”
Healing bodies and land
In Kenya, the Maendeleo project is giving back. At a national scale, the practices adopted by farmers like Waweru could regenerate entire ecosystems and regulate the water cycle. They can also mitigate greenhouse gas emissions: by dropping chemical inputs, the Kenyan is also helping to reduce the emissions that occur from the manufacture and transport of these synthetic products.
Waweru’s new farming practices are not just greener; they’re also more productive. Her trees have gone from producing an average of 250 avocados each year to over 350 today. Better still, now that she produces them naturally, she sells them for up to double the amount she could before.
In less than two years, Maendeleo has had extraordinary results: average maize yields amongst the initial 2,500 farmers targeted in Kirinyaga and Embu counties have grown by 30 per cent, while coffee production has jumped by 60 per cent. Farming ecosystems are flourishing.
The farmers under the pilot have virtually no input costs anymore. This is the main reason why they’re saving around 20 per cent on bills for each crop cycle. Another saving comes from fewer medical bills. Before going organic, many farmers were visiting clinics regularly to treat illnesses caused by exposure to synthetic pesticides.
Regenerative agriculture is healing bodies as well as the land. It is cheaper for farmers and potentially more productive. Maendeleo is now attracting “huge” interest from research institutions, donors and the private sector, says Didier Van Bignoot, the AKF global advisor in sustainable agriculture, food security and climate resilience. Over the coming years, it plans to reach three million smallholder farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
But the road to end hunger is long. Millions of Kenyans are suffering every day. Tackling such widespread deprivation requires decades-long investments into the building blocks of society: education, health, infrastructure and social protection. And agriculture, too, matters. As Peter Joroge implied, good farming has always been central to development.
As I write this, some months after visiting Kenya, I remember my impressions from that final day visiting Kitui County. Herders leading bony cattle along dirt tracks. Threadbare fields of maize. Clouds overhead, but no rain. Most of all, that conversation with Justus Ndemwa. It was so muted. Words seemed pointless.
Yet some extraordinary initiatives are changing things on the ground. Regenerating ecosystems and sustaining livelihoods, they are helping food systems to flourish. Donors, government and business need to get behind them.
Not with more words, though; with action.
This article was supported by the Aga Khan Development Network.