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Farming boosts income for residents of semi-arid Kitui

Kitui County, tucked away in the eastern part of Kenya is a semi-arid area boasting of large swathes of land with very little vegetation, mainly thorny shrubs. 




Here, farming has always been a challenging activity as it receives roughly 28 inches of rain, which occurs practically only during the rainy seasons around May and June. In deed the region inhabited by the Akamba ethnic community has it’s headlines previously as one full of hunger and whose residents require food relief.
But a visit to remote Itivanzou location in Mwingi North constituency reveals a different situation as a group of farmers are reaping huge returns from horticulture, thanks to the  Cash for Assets initiative developed through a partnership between the community and ActionAid Kenya.
Like other residents of the larger Kitui county, members of Kathitu self help group, never considered agriculture as a viable activity due to the sporadic rainfall. The group’s secretary, Ms Rita Mwaniki, 42, says locals had no skills in farming and would only get farm produce like vegetables from distant markets at exorbitant prices.
“We hardly enjoyed well balanced diets and malnutrition was common among our children,” says Ms Mwaniki, a mother of seven.
Many of them relied on small businesses whose proceeds were not enough to provide for the most basic needs, let alone paying school fees. When ActionAid began to implement a cash for assets programme in the area in 2013, many locals were able to acquire skills in agricultural production as they would work on their own farms in groups and in return receive basic food stuffs like cooking oil, maize, beans and sorghum.
ActionAid also arranged for workshops on better farming practices enabling them to sharpen their skills and better appreciate agriculture as an economic activity. Two years down the line, the locals have mobilized themselves into a group and are engaged in full time horticulture which ensures they not only get food for their families but are able to sell the produce for extra income.
The 29-member group, comprising 22 women and seven men, was formed in 2014 and grows spinach, sukuma wiki (kales), tomatoes,   onions, carrots, green grams and pepper on a piece of land given out by a member.
“We used to work in small groups on individual farms but we realized that we could achieve more if we formed a strong, registered group and farm together. Here we are able to irrigate the farm and produce a lot which we sell to locals and in neighbouring villages. We have also been able to forward a food security strategy paper to the county government that has seen us get agricultural officers to guide me,” says Ms. Mwaniki.
The group whose name Kathitu means a strong small hill, works on the farm as a group every Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The other days they work on individual farms and take care of other businesses. ActionAid helped the group sink a borehole and acquire water pipes and a generator which they use to irrigate the piece of land, turning it into a green field of blooming vegetables.
The group’s chairperson, 45-year-old Mtua Kaite, says during a good season they make about Ksh20,000 from the farm’s fresh produce. The group has a bank account where they save money from the farm and members can borrow and repay with interest. Kaite says the major challenge facing the group are pests which sometimes invade the farms and attack the crops as most of the pesticides they use to spray the crops are not effective.
“Sometimes the pumps leak and it costs us a lot to repair the leaking sections. The cost of spare parts is high and this cuts down our returns,” he says. Nzuna Masila, 44, a member of the group is all smiles as she narrates how farming has improved her living standards. A mother of six, Masila, who also grows vegetables in a small garden at her home, says she can afford to pay fees for her two school-going children and afford a well balanced diet for the family.
“Vegetables were a rare commodity in this area because of the high prices but now even if I don’t have money I can take sukuma wiki and tomatoes from the farm on credit and pay later. Our nutrition has changed for the better and children are now healthy,” she says.
 “We also have a merry-go-around where we contribute money and give to individuals. I was able to buy a goat from the money I got from the merry-go-round,” explains Masila.
The group plans to increase the area under agricultural production and venture into value addition to boost profits.
“We want to get into value addition so that we can maximize returns from the farm. We were taught how we can add value to produce such as potatoes which can be used to bake cakes during a seminar organized by ActionAid and with equipment we can do more,” says Kaite. The farm has become a demonstration field where residents from neighboring villages and students visit to learn about farming.