Vetiver grass plants resilience in rural Kenya

10 minutes, 54 seconds Read

By Chemtai Kirui

Vetiver, a perennial bunch of grass, in a homestead in Tilomwonin, Baringo. October 5, 2022 PHOTO/ Chemtai Kirui

Small-scale farmers, living in degraded land, prone to; landslides, soil, and gully erosion, say that Vetiver grass growing has stabilized their farm enough, for them to grow food and keep livestock, in a once written-off area.

  • Environment and Climate advisors say vetiver grass is a perennial plant, which is good for extreme weather.
  • Meteorologist terms Kerio Valley, an Arid and Semi-Arid region.
  • Calls are made for the allocation of 2% of County funds, to be dedicated to Climate Change Actions, across all departments.

As a born and bred resident of Muchukwa sub-location, Baringo county, John Chebet, a village elder and former area Councilor, has seen a dramatic shift, in the quality of life and fruitfulness of their land.

Speaking, while sitting under a large, shady, Mango tree, on a scorching sunny day, Chebet reminisced about the good old days.

“This land was fertile’’ he said, adding that “The only struggle we had was deciding how much land one can efficiently cultivate because we would use our hand to plow.’’

Chebet said that it wasn’t until the mid to late 1970s, that tractors were introduced in the area, thanks to the formulation of a society called – Baringo Kerio Valley farmers’ cooperative.

Former Councilor John Chebet sitting under a large, shady Mango Tree. October 5, 2022. PHOTO/ Chemtai Kirui

According to Chebet, his homeland was once a flourishing Cotton growing zone, but due to poor market pricing, farmers decided to stop cotton farming altogether, and thereafter, began a descent to destruction, through the introduction of nature-invasive business ventures, such as tree-cutting for charcoal burning and selling.

Today the land is on the extreme side of desertification.

”Kerio valley receives the lowest rainfall in the region, making it an ASAL land – which means a region classified as an Arid or Semi-Arid area,” said Simon Cheptot, the county director of meteorological services, in Elgeyo Marakwet, adding, “The rainfall has been erratic, owing to the changing climatic condition,” noting that the change is spearheaded by human activities because of encroachment of wetlands and forests, which interferes with local sources of moisture that goes into the atmosphere.

The rise in population and increased need for agricultural land – are some of the reasons given by officials in the area, as to why there are raising cases of encroachment.

“These human activities, have led to, not only competition between humans and wildlife in Kerio Basin but also, made the land susceptible to; soil Erosion, rock falls, landslides, mudslides, gully erosion, flooding, and siltation,” said Cheptot.

A Large and Wide gully at Lake Kamnarok. This Gully erosion is blamed on poor land use in the ecosystem. October 5, 2022. PHOTO/ Chemtai Kirui

These extreme Climatic Conditions have led to drought and famine, as well as, a worrying number of deaths of humans, wildlife, and livestock, as highlighted by news reports, over the years.

Cheptot outlined that “The shift of quality of life and nature in this lowland, means that the ‘people of Kerio Valley’, need to either adapt, move or perish.’’

It is against this glaring impact of climate change in the region, that a group of like-minded people, living in Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet, and Uasin Gishu territory, have decided to adjust to the expected effects of climate change, through the introduction of Vetiver grass growing in their farmland, to stay safe and protect their land.

Since his retirement, Aaron Kangwony, the pioneer of Vetiver grass growing in Muchukwa sublocation, Baringo North, has been a busy man. He grows vetiver grass, propagates its seedling, sells it, and educates interested parties, about the importance of this “Miracle Pasture.”

Kangwony who lives in Tilomwonin Village, found in Barwesa ward, which sits about 3 kilometers stretch away from Lake Kamnarok, has his homestead surrounded with vetiver grass.

A long view of degraded Lake Kamnarok, the only Oxbow Lake in Kenya. October 5, 2022. PHOTO/ Chemtai Kirui.

Kangwony’s homestead, interestingly lies green, filled with vegetation, a stark contrast from the brown and red field seen across the road, which he says are compound of individuals who ‘are yet to plant vetiver grass’,

“I first introduced vetiver grass to my farm and then urged my neighbors and friends to do the same, as a way of stabilizing our land enough for us to grow food, and provide fodder for the livestock even during the dry season,” he said.

Aaron Kangwony, Vetiver grass project -lead, at the backyard of his home in Muchukwa, Baringo. October 5, 2022. PHOTO/ Chemtai Kirui

“Vetiver grass is an exotic plant”, he said. “I learned of its many benefits on my visit to India, back when I was working for an Airline. Afterward, I found a way of bringing this grass back home.”

Kangwony said that he is glad he made the decision of planting vetiver grass when he did. It has become a working project for him and his family.

“I am able to feed my cattle and plant vegetation here. The profits I make from selling vetiver seedlings have enabled me to provide for my family’s needs.”

“Vetiver grass is a perennial plant, which helps in the recovery, rehabilitation, and restoration of degraded land,” said Dr. Monica Nderitu, the regional environment, and Climate advisor, at Vi Agroforestry.

“Besides the grass being effective in curbing the soil run-off, its’ abundant and deep vertical roots make it easy to grow alongside other crops” she said.

Incorporating vetiver grass together with the diversification of drought-tolerant and early-maturing crops is a step taken by small-scale farmers in Tilomwonin Village. This Integration is aimed at ensuring the availability of food in all seasons.

Miriam Kipruto – (Mama Chebet) whose role is in growing vetiver grass seedlings, says that the decision to stick to drought-resistant crops didn’t happen overnight.

She said “We did grow maize, but due to unreliable weather patterns, the plant wouldn’t grow to fruition. We even chose to count our losses and replant again, when it started raining, but the efforts were futile.”

Mama-Chebet said that after, countless efforts, they opted to plant crops that do well in this environment, resorting to indigenous crops such as Kunde (cowpeas) Ndengu (Green grams) Mtama (Sorghum, Millet) Maharage (Beans)  Njugu (Nuts) and Muhogo (Cassava).

Early maturing crop in Miriam Kipruto farm. October 5, 2022. PHOTO/Chemtai Kirui.

Diversification of drought-resistant crop, is a highly encouraging resilience method, for farmers facing; drought, heat, and invasion of pests and diseases, which affects crop production and badly impact the food security of a Nation.

According to a report  published by ReliefWeb – a humanitarian information service provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) “more than 4.2 million people representing 24% of the ASAL population in Kenya, are facing high levels of acute food insecurity with about 2.7 million people in the Crisis phase and 785,000 people in the Emergency state.

The report adds that the ongoing drought (2020 – 2022) has been the most severe and longest, with widespread livelihood losses and massive displacement of populations.

President William Ruto, the newly elected leader of the Republic of Kenya, said that the government has allocated 2 billion Kenyan shillings for food relief – to go to people affected by severe drought in the country.

“Government support always comes in, a little too late,” said Steve Itela, the Chief Executive Officer of Conservation Alliance, Kenya, noting that for us to protect ourselves from the impact of climate change, we need to take urgent sustainable actions from the ground up.

Itela said that “Locally-led projects are wonderful. If one person discovers an activity that works in a community, and they call on one another, forming a group of 10 or 50, then that is an indication that resilience is being developed. Because Climate change is not a one-person fight.”

He called upon communities to assess the resources available to them, and establish systems that enable them to reduce vulnerabilities and enhances protection against disturbances related to Climate change.

For Individuals who have incorporated Vetiver grass growing in Muchukwa Sub County in Baringo, a multipurpose approach is being used. The community is using Vetiver grass for; fodder, mulching, thatching, and medicinal purpose.

Mama Chebet tells us that they use vetiver grass-infused water for baths, as it helps with clearing rashes. “The steam of boiling vetiver grass roots is inhaled to help fight the flu congestion,” she said.

Mama Chebet attending to her Vetiver grass Seedling, at her Compound in Muchukwa, Baringo. October 5, 2022. PHOTO/ Chemtai Kirui

“Vetiver grass is considered an ideal plant to be used in soil and water conservation,” says Nderitu, adding that “This grass can also be used as remediation of polluted soil as a result of harsh agrochemicals which affects soil nutrients.”

Meanwhile, Farmers continue to trickle into the small village, to buy vetiver grass seedlings.

Chelimo – (Mama Chumba) is a small-scale farmer in Uasin Gishu County. She learned about Vetiver grass benefits from her daughter, who brought her 15 seedlings from Baringo county.

“I am very excited about the prospects of this grass. My daughter told me that its extensive deep roots, make it a better pasture in fighting soil erosion”, she said while pointing towards a row of trenches, filled with leafy Nappier grass.

Mama-Chumba said that her farm is prone to soil erosion and stagnant water during the rainy season, causing the soil to become waterlogged.

“I dug several trenches along the farm, to enable better flow of water and incorporated Nappier growing, for fodder, to increase soil fertility and reduce soil run-off,” she said, adding that, she sells Nappier to her Neighbours earning her a monthly wage.

“I see myself in the near future sharing or selling the propagated vetiver grass seedling to interested neighbors so that we can equalize and fight the occurrence of soil erosion, together’’ she said.

Mama Chumba, holding on to a robust Nappier grass, in her small-scale farm, in Uasin Gishu County October 8, 2022. PHOTO/ Chemtai Kirui

The Tilomwonin project is getting traction according to Kangwony. “I was called upon by county officials who are working under Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture. These officers who are integrated with the ministry of agriculture asked me to speak to students at Baringo farmers training college”. On that day he says, he carried with him 14,000 vetiver grass seedlings, which were planted in various parts of Baringo wards – ( Kapropita and Mogotio)

Jennifer Kipkazi, the Director of Environment and Natural resources in Baringo county, said that her office is calling for the allocation of 2% of county funds, to go toward Climate Change measures.

 “If this funding is approved by the county Assembly, it will be solely dedicated to Climate Change sensitization, training, marketing, and support of locally-led Projects, to encourage climate change adaptation measures”, she said.

Kipkazi reiterated that her department is working towards the creation of a designated Climate Change Unit, which will be solely dedicated to the implementation of hands-on Climate Change activities.

Action taken by individuals involved in this project is lauded by Itela. He said that “for a community to be able to live with the effects of climate change, then we have to quickly find ways to adapt. No one should sit back and wait for outside help; we need to help ourselves first.”

Nderitu, on the other hand, said that locals need to be supported fully and the knowledge they have about their community, should be tapped into, nothing that, engaging the community in projects that are intended to solve their own problems, is vital for change.

“For sustainability to occur, locally-led projects should be applauded. Interested parties should engage the communities in dialogs. Let us not have solutions being developed somewhere else and being dumped to the inhabitants.”

Janneth Nandwa, at the grounds of Kerio Valley Hills Hotel, in Kabarnet, Baringo. October 5, 2022. PHOTO/ Chemtai Kirui

“The meteorological department is working tirelessly to provide a correct prediction about the weather patterns which enables the farmers to plan their steps effectively,” said Cheptot  

A study done by Jomo Kenyatta university on the assessment of Soil Erosion and Climate Variability in Kerio Valley Basin, “recommends further research involving the role of human-induced factors in contribution to land degradation of the basin.”

Thanks to the work of the people in Kerio Valley, Vetiver grass farming, is becoming a regional affair, providing an alternative to a community that would otherwise, be among the devastating annual statistics of people living in the Arid and Semi-Arid Areas 

Rural Women, like Mama Chumba and Mama Chebet who are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as a result of overreliance on natural resources, are acutely aware, of the Importance of Climate change adaptation.  

Active involvement of rural women in formulating an on- and off-farm land stabilization, allows a community to plant resilience in their ecosystem.   

“This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.”

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