A drive through Turkana County in Kenya and all I see is dry land, no sign of rain at least in the recent past, some scattered wells here and there, and the one who gets clean water for themselves and their cattle is the one who rises first.
We are headed to Lobur, approximately 250 kilometers from Lodwar Town, there, we are told farming in the desert exists, it’s almost hard to believe as how can such a place produce food, but I was wrong.
Turkana County, in the northwest section of Kenya, is one of the poorest counties in the country. Thanks to crude oil exploration and hydroelectric power, the area is beginning to emerge as a major energy-producing region. But the area, much like the rest of Kenya, is still largely an agrarian-based economy.
That’s a challenge considering Turkana County, in addition to being very poor, is also very hot and arid. But that isn’t stopping one man’s effort to transform what is essentially a desert into an area that could potentially house some of the most arable, profitable land in Kenya.
Stephen Wambugu Munene is an agronomist and the current operations manager for Furrows in the Desert, an agricultural development program based on Israeli expertise in desert agriculture.
The Lobur Catholic Mission in Turkana County launched the project in 2012. Munene joined in 2018 after spending several years in Israel where agriculture is a highly developed industry, despite the fact that the geography of the country is not naturally conducive to agriculture.
Turkana County has almost similar climatic conditions.
Munene and his team show Turkana residents basic farming techniques and then equip them with a family drip system, farm tools and seeds. Upon graduation of the trainees, they then select two people to work with and train them for one year.
“We encourage both pastoralism and farming, because from being pastoralists, they get the manure from their livestock, being goats, cows, donkeys and from there they prepare the compost for the crops.” Munene says.
The project has trained more than 200 farmers since 2018. 28-year-old Ekal Kelly Etabo has been a trainer at the project for over three years. He started off as a trainee.
“In this training, we just want to turn the minds of the nomad people, to put their heads in agriculture, because agriculture can give you everything,” Ekal explains.
There are 16 trainees in each group. 50-year-old Alice Ayanae Lemuye, a mother of six is one of them.
“The lessons and skills I have equipped myself with from here will help me carry on with farming even after I leave this place, and cater for my children’s school fees.” The mother of six said.
Another trainee is 29-year-old Josphat Eyenae Etiir, a father of three, who has also been at the training center for two months.
”I came here because I am unemployed, so I decided instead of engaging myself in crime, it’s better if I gain skills on how to farm,” he explains.
James Educan is one of the major success stories. He says the skills he learned now help him earn Ksh 70,000 (700$) from his farm annually.
”What has encouraged me as a farmer is the market, the kind of market I’m getting. These crops you’re seeing here, spinach, tomatoes, melons, these crops have a market.”
Munene says it’s these success stories that help justify the project and also provide him with a sense of accomplishment. He’s pleased by the yields his trainees receive because those great yields translate to a good source of income.
”At the beginning, people here didn’t know about vegetables, but now you find people are looking, they have the desire of having a vegetable in their diet, so that makes me very happy to see that.”
The project is now different places in Turkana County, including Turkana North (Kopotea 2, Kaikor, Kibish, Maisa, Katanguun, Lobur, Todonyang, Kokusilei, Nariokotome, Kalimapus.), Turkana West (Kamdei and Kakuma), Turkana South (Kalapata, Lokichar, Loodot and Nakwamoru) and in Lodwar town (Nazarene, Nakwamekui and Nawetorong).
Munene says next year he and his team will evaluate the overall success of Furrows in the Desert to determine whether the project should expand beyond Turkana County.