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By linking indigenous techniques with permaculture methods, a Kenyan NGO is ensuring food security for farmers while preserving biodiversity.
In the western Kenyan counties of Kakamega and Vihiga, maize has been the staple crop for generations, feeding a population of mostly small-scale farmers. The grain is harvested twice a year using agrochemical techniques. But these very aggressive processes, which consist mainly of the use of large quantities of plant protection products, have devastating effects on the environment.
Not only are soils depleted, but biodiversity is threatened. Not to mention the side effects of monoculture, particularly on the diet, health and income of farmers. Yields are falling year after year, prompting farmers to use even more inputs, perpetuating a vicious circle that could affect all agricultural activity in the region.
A few years ago, the Kenyan NGO Bio Gardening Innovations (BIOGI) launched a major programme to reverse this trend. The aim is to transform maize fields into food forests and enable farmers to improve their living conditions through their own labour. To carry out its project, BIOGI approached farmers interested in agroecological methods, with the idea of combining indigenous and ancestral techniques with the latest developments in permaculture.
This is how the Emuhaya holistic gardening project was born. Like a wild forest, this food forest is organised in a vertical structure with several levels of vegetation. The flora and fauna have a rich and complex relationship with each other, with very little disturbance from human intervention. Unlike a wild forest, the food forest has been thought out in advance, including varieties of trees and crops useful for the farmers’ personal consumption or that of their livestock.
Order without control
At Emuhaya, no association is left to chance: cassava grows with beans, while pumpkins grow in the shade of maize leaves. Large 60-centimetre-deep gullies have been dug across the slope to catch and retain run-off water and limit soil erosion. Vetiver grass helps to consolidate the banks of these gullies, thanks to its deep and powerful roots.
In these wetlands, other varieties flourish, such as the arroche, cocoyam, sweet potato and pumpkin. Slightly set back, larger species, mainly banana and papaya trees, ensure the stability of the banks.
Finally, plant waste and animal excrement are collected to banish all chemical inputs. They are used to produce a nutrient-rich compost, sufficient to improve the soil. All these efforts have restored soil fertility and ensured a return of biodiversity. They have also provided farmers with the opportunity to improve their incomes through higher yields and more biodiverse food. To date, more than 2,000 smallholders are already successfully applying the NGO’s methods.