Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Restoring Kenya’s semi-arid agricultural land

Nicholas Syano grew up in Makueni County, a region found south-east of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. The area experiences semi-arid conditions, and is located in what’s known as Kenya’s drylands.

Drylands cover an estimated 84% of Kenya’s land surface area, and support about a third of the country’s population. These ecosystems face added vulnerability to climate change because of unpredictable rainfall patterns and severe land degradation.

For Syano, this challenging landscape is home. Returning to Kenya after receiving a master’s degree in natural resource management from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, Syano founded the Drylands Natural Resources Centre (DNRC), a locally-registered NGO that works with subsistence farmers to restore degraded drylands.

With operations starting in 2009, DNRC addresses the interconnected challenges of deforestation, reduction in crop yields, water scarcity, culture loss, and climate change. Many of these pressures disproportionately affect women and children, as they are often the ones responsible for finding and cutting firewood and walking to wells or taps to fetch water.

The ultimate goal of DNRC’s work is to transform Kenya’s drylands into functioning agricultural land, improving local food security, the health and well-being of communities, and the environment.

DNRC’s community engagement work

As both a farmer and a Kenyan national, Syano believes that making communities self-sustaining is key in fighting climate change.

Furthermore, he says permaculture is the best way to address the trio of economic, environmental, and social challenges faced by his home county. “I’ve found that, through the use of permaculture, I can solve most of our dryland issues,” he stated in an interview at the 2017 International Permaculture Conference in Hyderabad, India.

DNRC takes a number of approaches in its community engagement work, namely through organic growing, tree planting, and the sale of value-added products, including green charcoal, Moringa powder and seeds, and locally-produced handicrafts.

While not every facet of the team’s engagement relates directly to the environment or food security, the premise is that by increasing the economic well-being of farmer families, they will have greater agency to adopt environmentally-beneficial practices versus ones necessitated by poverty.

The NGO maintains a nursery of more than 30 species of trees and over 100,000 seedlings. These seedlings are distributed to farmers during the rainy season as a means to save water (planted tree roots capture and store water, enhancing the moisture content of soil). As well as boosting soil fertility, many of DNRC’s tree species are drought-resistant and fruit-bearing, making them especially valuable in a region facing climatic and economic pressures.

A farmer training and outreach program is another core component of DNRC’s approach, and provides education on organic and agroecological methods to more than 700 households (approximately 3,000 people). Local extension officers mobilize both before and after the seasonal rains, ensuring farmers prepare plots of land where they can plant the seedlings once the season does begin. Farmers can also visit DNRC’s demonstration farm to see permaculture principles in practice.

Syano says educational outreach initiatives are important in convincing community members why a tree left standing will bring farmers greater value than if it is cut. “We need people to understand why planting trees is good for them,” Syano summarizes.

Next steps amidst a global pandemic

DNRC’s community relationships and established programs were an asset when the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Recognizing the added health risks faced by farmers who would have no choice but to leave their home to tend their fields and gardens, Syano and his team encouraged them to consume the locally-produced Moringa powder as a way to improve nutrition and build a stronger immune system.

Relying on their own fruit trees and kitchen gardens, DNRC-supported farmers have been able to continue harvesting food for their families. This hyper-local food security is especially important since the pandemic affected the livelihoods and economic well-being of many rural Kenyans.

Other than the relatively recent threat of the pandemic, many of DNRC’s long-time stressors remain. “Water remains our biggest challenge as we have no permanent water source, only a nearby seasonal river,” wrote Syano in a November 2020 update. Eventually, the organization would like to raise the funds to drill their own borehole.

Despite these pain points, Syano remains positive that DNRC and its thousands of farmers are making the progress needed to survive and thrive amidst a rapidly-changing world: “As we plant the trees, it changes even the young generation. I’m looking in 10 years to come, 20 years to come, that my community will be one of the richest communities and it will be one of the most sustainable communities.”