A future with healthy soils, a healthy environment, and healthy people: the agroecological conversation in Kenya

Could a future-forward climate adaptation strategy exist without leadership from the youth?

As the global population grows, it becomes increasingly important to empower young people to lead in mitigating climate change and strengthening food systems. The agroecological conversation in Kenya is driving this critical topic that will pave the way for sustainable and equitable agriculture.

 Fridah Wanjiku Irungu, a 26-year-old agroecology champion, has enthusiastically taken up this responsibility. She is not your average young person in Gathinja Village, Kiharu Constituency Murang’a County. When Fridah speaks, the entire community listens. She is one of the young agroecology champions working with Greener Greens, a three-year project funded by The Biovision Foundation and implemented by SNV Kenya and The World Vegetables Centre.

 Fridah has created a trustworthy base that buys into her vision of a fully organic, vegetable-producing, consuming community. Her love for nature has turned into a flourishing and sustainable livelihood, an important component of the project. ‘The demand for organically grown vegetables is at an all-time high in Kiharu, Hapa hakuna mtu anataka mboga imepigwa dawa, nobody wants to eat vegetables pumped with chemicals.’ she says emphatically.

 The project’s overall objective is to increase the adoption of agroecological vegetable production at the systems level, contributing to long-term improvements in incomes, food security, and farmer resilience. This is done by building an evidence base for smallholder vegetable production systems based on agroecological approaches.

Fridah Irungu demonstrates some of the agroecology practices to community members.

Fridah joined the project in March 2022. At the time, she was particularly interested in organic crop production, a farming technique that prioritises ecological balance and limits the use of chemical inputs. Like other farmers in Kiharu Constituency, she would use conventional farming practices such as fertilisers for increased yields and pesticides to control pests and diseases. ‘I was very happy to see dead insects as a result of the knock-down effect of insecticides; little did I know that the same effects trickle down to beneficial microorganisms affecting soil biodiversity.’ This knowledge was eye-opening for her and reinforced her resolve to adopt eco-friendly farming practices.

Fridah has received training from the Greener Greens Project and can now use locally available and environmentally friendly materials in and around her farm. She uses techniques such as compost, farmyard manure, vermicompost and bokashi to improve soil fertility and health, resulting in increased yields. Additionally, she has started using plant extracts such as Tithonia diversifolia, neem plant, and Mexican Marigold to control pests and diseases, alongside integrated pest management practices like the use of sticky and pheromone traps. She practices water conservation techniques such as Zai pits, sunken beds, and dry and living mulching. These methods have significantly reduced production costs while preserving and improving biological and ecological processes in agricultural production. Most importantly, they have created a conducive environment for soil microorganisms to thrive.

'Looking at this soil, you will notice an abundance of microbial communities such as earthworms, a phenomenon you will not come across in many farms in our area,’  Fridah affirms.

Fridah Irungu

Changing times

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of their food choices and are choosing organic food more often due to its positive effects on human health and the environment. This trend is driving better agricultural practices that prioritise quality over quantity. At the same time, there is now more awareness for farmers in vulnerable regions to adopt more sustainable methods to protect their livelihoods. Agroecological practices will significantly influence the future of agriculture as the global demand for healthy and sustainable food continues to rise.

Policy level engagement

Soil health is the foundation of our food systems and provides several vital ecosystem services, including land productivity, flood regulation, nutrient cycling, and carbon sequestration.​ To improve soil health, we must address critical implementation, monitoring, policy, and investment barriers that constrain farmers from adopting and scaling healthy soil practices.​

The Government of Kenya (GOK) is highly committed to improving the food systems in the country. The main objective is to ensure that people have access to safe and nutritious food. However, the issues within the food systems, particularly in production, pose a significant challenge to Kenya's efforts to promote sustainable food and land-use systems and other social and economic advancements. Therefore, more partnerships and collaborations are needed across all levels of the government to realise this agenda.

The project has been working closely with the Department of Agriculture of Murang'a County Government. The main aim of this collaboration is to develop an Agroecological Policy that will promote the adoption of agroecological production in county planning and financing. This will help to integrate this farming approach into Kenya's agricultural system, ensuring a sustainable and safe food system for the people of Kenya.

‘We launched the Murang’a County Agro-Ecological Policy in 2023. The policy addresses food security, food safety, and nutrition. We are in the process of gradually rolling out implementation through various extension services and support from partners like the 'Greener Greens project.' As a county, we have committed to ensuring that the food our people consume and what we put out to the market is very safe - to the producer and consumer, to the environment, and to the soil. We wish to see Murang’a County labelled as a heaven for safe food’, declares Hon. Kiringai Wa Kamau, County Executive Committee Member, Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Murang’a County.

‘We have had two counties already that have come from Vihiga and Kiambu, benchmarking with us. Fifteen more counties will come to learn from us on how we have formulated our policies’, Hon. Kiringai Wa Kamau adds.

Integrated Pest management practices demonstrated at Greener Greens demo farm.

Addressing difficulties in organic farming

Agroecology, just like conventional farming practices, has its challenges. It requires meticulous planning, hard work, and innovative problem-solving. However, the difficulties and constraints of organic farming are being addressed by improvements in organic practices, precision farming methods, and cutting-edge technology, making it a more practical and scalable choice. Organic farming is more than simply the food we eat; it's about caring for the world and encouraging a peaceful interaction between humans and nature. Adhering to agroecological principles contributes to healthier ecosystems, greater nutrition, and a more resilient agricultural system. Farmers like Fridah present a role model example to other farmers that achieving sustainable farming practises, healthy soil, and, most importantly, food for a healthy community is possible.

Authors: Collins Kirui and Harold Odoro