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Q&A: Studying Kenyan Farmers’ Efforts to Adapt

Zukiswa Zimela interviews JUDI WAKHUNGU, executive director, African Centre for Technology Studies

NAIROBI, Mar 23 2011 (IPS) - Climate change has become an important part of the development agenda. In Africa, farmers and consumers alike are feeling its effects on productivity and food security.

Professor Judi Wakhungu is the lead researcher on the Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change project, which is gathering data and case studies of adaptation to provide policy makers with technical and scientific evidence to guide them.

Q: How will the results from the research project help farmers? A: We are working in eight different countries and looking to see how communities are coping with climate change.

What we are doing in Kenya is comparing the dry land area in eastern Kenya with another one which is in western Kenya, close to Lake Victoria. The experiences in the two zones are almost opposite each other in this regime of erratic weather that we are experiencing.

The one closest to the lake is challenged with continual flooding every year, while in the zone on the eastern side, rains fail to fall.

We don’t have the answers: what we are doing is trying to look at what the different communities are experiencing and then drawing on that to inform policy.

What we hope to see is plans to be implemented as international policy so that we can have institutions and laws on how we are supposed to respond when the situation becomes tragic. At present we do not have a response mechanism.

Q: What are examples of farmers who are already successfully adapting to climate change? A: For instance in eastern Kenya in the Makueni district, we saw a lot of innovation in terms of how farmers were coping with drought. Whereas in Oyola and Wakesi, which is near Kisumu we saw that farmers were having difficulties coping with the flooding.

In some cases farmers depend almost entirely on the national government  to get seed [with drought or flood-resistant qualities]. On the other hand, in some communities, we have found that the farmers themselves have really become innovators. In the sense that some farmers now became specialists and are able to produce hybrid seeds which could cope with the extreme climate.

Q: What are your concerns with farmers relying on the government for seed? A:  It brings a sort of dependency which as a subsistence farmer is a very dangerous position to be in. The whole notion of being a subsistence farmer is to be self-reliant.

On the other side we have seen that farmers have started to depend on what we call “orphaned crops”. Farmers used to depend on sorghum and millet, then they moved on to maize and in some cases rice. Now they have turned back to the old crops.

Farmers ought to be the custodians of the seed.

Q: But would it not be better for farmers if governments had a well-managed system that would provide them with seed in times of need? A:  Absolutely. That’s why we continue to do the work that we do is so that government can put programmes in place where they have the infrastructure to get food to people who need it.

Q: If agriculture and food security are priority areas when facing climate change, how can using arable land for biofuels be justified? A: The answer is yes and no. You have to look at the conditions in each and every African country; we cannot make a blanket statement.

Let me give you an example: Tanzania has made agriculture a national priority – they even have a national slogan which says, Agriculture first and agriculture for the future.

Tanzania has a lot of land and a different land tenure system in that the land belongs to the government. So they have set aside a trust and some of the land has been set aside for biofuels in the form of jatropha and sugar cane farmers for ethanol. The argument is that if the ethanol production is successful, then the people will be able to earn revenue in order to grow food.

Q: Yet in the case of Tanzania, IPS recently reported on a botched biofuels project in the Kilwa District… A: That particular project was badly planned, and they also chose to use one biofuel – jatropha – which is not the best for this area.

So this was rushed through, without the policies in place and the company seemed ill-prepared to deal with the local conditions and the local politics. Also, misinformation was given to the farmers on how they were to benefit.

We have used this project to show how important it is to have the right policies in place, the right legal framework in place so that all partners understand what their responsibilities are.

A: In Kenya, we just don’t have that kind of land [available], to put aside tracts of land to attract foreign investors for biofuels production. This has been attempted, but it has been very politically charged with people coming out and saying that some of these deals are not being conducted above board.

So it would be a disaster here and it would lead to food insecurity.

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