Pastoral communities in dryland areas of Kenya face many challenges, especially the devastating effects caused by recurrent and prolonged droughts. Smallholder farmers and pastoral households are now adopting new practices to cushion them against such shocks. One such practice is grass farming that is taking root in semi-arid areas like the lowlands of Baringo County characterised by perennial drought.
Hellen Parsalaach is one of the farmers in the area who has adopted this farming practice. A mother of four and the sole bread winner of her family, she begun growing grass in 2015 on a one-acre piece of family land. Her first crop was planted with seeds given to her on credit terms from Rehabilitation of Arid Environments (RAE) Ltd. The smallholder farmers in the area engaged in grass farming mainly plant the Cenchrus ciliaris. This is the preferred grass variety grown due to its ability to thrive, its drought tolerance qualities, viability and ease of harvest for seeds.
RAE Ltd promotes grass farming among pastoralists communities in Kenya’s vast arid and semi-arid areas by rehabilitating, developing and managing pasturelands; selling quality dryland grass seed and fattening cattle during drought conditions. The company also provides extension services and consultancies to support these activities.
The farmers also known as fodder producers earn income through the sale of grass seed to RAE and leasing their farm lands to their neighbours to graze. This year, 2017, Hellen has earned about US $750 from her grass seed sales and additional US $100 per month from hiring out her grass farm to other community members to graze their cows at US $10 per cow per month. This is a welcome practice in the area as a number of farmers have lost their cattle during the long and frequent drought spells, with little grass remaining on the degraded lowlands except in cultivated fodder fields.
Hellen comes from the II Chamus community (a sub-group of the Maasai) who are patriarchal and still believe strongly in their cultural practices and the role women play. She is one of the few women in the community who are engaging in income generating activities that significantly empower them. With the increased income Hellen is able to pay schools fees and meet the family’s basic needs, including purchase of food.
With support from RAE there are now over 800 ‘private’ fodder fields in the Baringo lowlands with 457 households benefiting from a total net benefit of over US $490,000 in quarter one and two, of 2017. In addition to the grass seeds, the company provides extension services to farmers like Hellen to determine the optimal utilisation of fields through diverse income generating activities, including the number of cows that can be supported by the grass field so as to avoid overgrazing.
Prior to planting grass, Hellen planted maize and burnt wood for charcoal. Her average income from the two economic activities was not guaranteed and prone to instability due to the perennial drought and the intense competition in the charcoal market.
In the coming years, Helen plans to increase the acreage under grass. With more women being empowered to manage their grass farming activities and make decisions on spending the income generated, families in rural semi-arid areas have a brighter future.
AECF has invested in Rehabilitation of Arid Environments (RAE) Ltd to promote grass farming in semi-arid areas in Kenya.