Food for the hungry months in Kenya

Erin Doornbos

The community of Ithanga is a flat, sandy wasteland in the Thika district of central Kenya. The area receives low and undependable amounts of rainfall. Of the little rain that does fall, most is lost to the porous land. Since the community depends on agriculture as its primary source of income, the people of Ithanga often suffer from periods of severe hunger. These "hungry months" can be so relentless that the government must step in with food relief. Sadly, these long and desperate stretches of starvation are common to Ithanga, trapping the community in humbling dependency on government aid.

CRWRC and its partner agency Mt. Kenya Christian Community Services (MKCCS) are working to change this state of dependency by introducing programs that reduce vulnerability to the hungry months. One such program is in organic farming. CRWRC and MKCCS have taught farmers to dig trenches and fill them with manure compost. The farmers then plant their corn (or, maize) in the trenches. As opposed to thirsty, sand fields that soak up water like a sponge, the trenches and compost help the soil retain much of the little rain that falls. The compost also provides a free, environmentally friendly and effective fertilizer for the crops. The combined effect of increased water and fertilizer has already resulted in an average 20% increase in harvests, providing food for families even during the hungry months.

One family who employed this organic farming method was the Mutuas. The Mutuas are ordinary people in Ithanga who, like many rural Kenyan people, have a large number of children (they have a grand total of 10). Because they have such a large family to provide for, the Mutuas were eager to learn and employ the organic farming method. During the last long rains Mrs. Mutua prepared four trenches of about 20 meters and filled them with composted manure. She then planted corn in these trenches and managed to harvest five bags of maize during an extremely dry season.

Mr. Mutua says about organic farming:

"For many years we used to cultivate our land in the ordinary way like many others in Ithanga but we hardly harvested enough for our family. We used to rely on mwethia (food relief) especially when the season failed. In 2004, we were encouraged to practice organic farming by MKCCS and we planted maize and beans in trenches and 5" by 9" holes. Though there was almost 90% crop failure in Ithanga we harvested five and two 90-Kg bags of maize and beans respectively. This has sustained our family this far."

Another way CRWRC and MKCCS are working to minimize the hungry months is to promote and train community members in crop diversification, with a focus on growing crops that survive well in the arid climate. One such crop is grain amaranth. Amaranth is very high in nutritional content and grows well even in dry areas. There is also a growing market for amaranth, so once food needs for the family are met the grain can be sold on the market and generate income for the family.

Here's what the CRWRC-MKCCS programs have done so far:

- 43 families in Ithanga did not need the government food relief in 2004

- by the end of March 2005, 58 families in Ithanga continued to have sufficient food -- a drastic increase from previous years

- 573 farmers have received training in organic farming and crop diversification methods. Already families are reporting an increased amount of food available to them and a reduction in the hungry months they experienced

Jesus' parable of the seed in Luke 8:6b has been painfully true for Ithanga in the past: "Some [seed] fell on the rock and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture." Yet, through the work of CRWRC, MKCCS and the community members themselves, families are being fed and income is being generated. Out of this dry, sandy land- food, faith and hope is finally beginning to grow.