Wairimu Michengi, GPJ

LOLGORIEN DIVISION, KENYA – It is about 2 p.m. and the sun feels unbearably hot.

A Masai herdsman is preparing fodder for his dairy cows before he can start milking them.

He chops Napier grass, a long, drought-resistant tropical grass he grows in a section of his 40-acre farm. He throws the harvested grass into a wheelbarrow.

In the background, cow bells ring, alerting the herdsman that his 500 cattle are on their way home from the grazing fields.

The Napier grass offsets the effects of the drought that ravaged Sokonoi, a village in Lolgorien division, about 278 kilometers (172 miles) west of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, from April 2014 to end of July.

The village has experienced recurrent droughts, and rainfall has become irregular over the past 10 years, says the herdsman, Richard Sindau.

“The rains fall for two to three days, then disappear for months,” he says.

But Sindau says he no longer worries about droughts because he is growing crops that can sustain his family and herd in dry times.

Before Sindau started growing Napier and other hardy grass varieties two years ago, his dairy cows and other animals would grow weak during the region’s recurring droughts, he says. Some animals would die.

“Three years ago, I lost five cows at the same time to drought,” he says.

But in 2012, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, in partnership with agricultural extension officers employed by the government, started a farming program in Sindau’s division and the neighboring Kirindon division.

They taught Sindau and other herders how to grow fodder crops, which are cultivated for animal feed, and food crops that can withstand harsh weather.

Sindau, who had never before tried farming, set aside a portion of his land for different grass varieties as well as sweet potatoes and bananas, all of which can withstand long droughts.

The crops have done well even when no rain has fallen for months, he says.

The sweet potatoes’ yield was so high, in fact, that he gave some of the harvest to neighbors who have yet to embrace farming, he says.

The crops sustained his family and herd, he says.

“My dairy cows would have died if I didn’t have the fodder,” he says.

Lolgorien division, a rangeland in southwest Kenya characterized by open grasslands and bushy vegetation, has experienced severe droughts for the past 10 years. To mitigate the effects of the droughts, some members of the Masai, a nomadic, pastoral community living in the area, have taken to farming. They are growing drought-resistant food crops and animal fodder.

Experts attribute the change in climate here to global warming, which is caused in part by deforestation. They urge the community to plant trees and winnow their herds to combat overgrazing and prevent further environmental degradation.

Temperatures have been rising in Kenya since the early 1960s, according to the National Climate Change Response Strategy published in 2010. Both daytime and nighttime temperatures have been increasing throughout most of the country.

Weather patterns have become unpredictable in the Lolgorien division, home to about 20,000 Masai, according to the 2009 census.

But the weather changes have been gradual. The Masai community did not begin to recognize them until 10 years ago, district agricultural extension officer Protas Machoka says.

Historically, heavy rains would fall from mid-March to mid-June, followed by cold weather between July and October, Machoka says. Brief rains would fall in November and December, and January and February would be dry.

But this year, for example, the area experienced drought between April and July. Rains came in early August and stopped after about two weeks.

The annual rainfall in Lolgorien division has been decreasing gradually since 1988, according to a report by Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI. Normal annual rainfall here used to be 1,380 mm (54 inches), but over the past 26 years rainfall has only reached that level once every 10 years.

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Farmer Emily Kokoyo inspects her sweet potato vines. Her family relies on the drought-resistant crop during dry weather. (Wairimu Michengi, GPJ)

Wairimu Michengi, GPJ

To adapt to climate change, some herders in Lolgorien division now practice agro-pastoralism, which means growing crops to feed livestock instead of constantly herding animals to fresh pasture. (Wairimu Michengi, GPJ)

Wairimu Michengi, GPJ

Richard Sindau, a Masai herdsman in Kenya’s Lolgorien division, grows Napier grass to sustain his herd of cattle during dry spells. (Wairimu Michengi, GPJ)

Wairimu Michengi, GPJ

Natural occurrences and human activities have both contributed to the changing climate, says Michael Okoti, national coordinator for environment and climate change research at KARI. Both produce greenhouse gases and affect rainfall formation.

Human activities such as burning fossil fuels have increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, causing a rise in global temperatures, he says.

Forests are climate regulators, Okoti says. Kenyan deforestation caused by human settlement and charcoal production also has contributed to the changing climate here.

Forests now cover only 6 percent of the country, down from 11 percent in 1963.

In the Lolgorien division, forest cover has also been drastically reduced, says Martin Barare, assistant coordinator of the KARI farming program.

“This area used to have a vast forest cover 20 years ago,” Barare says. “Almost 90 percent of the area was covered by forests. But most of the forests have been cleared for human settlement and to make charcoal.”

Today, there is just 50 percent forest cover here.

The changing weather patterns are also responsible for food shortages. Kenya has long depended on rain-fed agriculture for food, according to the World Food Program.

Widespread dependence on rain-fed agriculture makes Africa particularly vulnerable to climate change, according to a 2013 World Bank report, “Turn Down the Heat.” As pastoral and agricultural diversification options dwindle, the number of undernourished Africans could increase by 25 to 90 percent by 2050.

As a result, the changing rain patterns and subsequent droughts have had a profound impact on the country’s food security, Okoti says.

These droughts also have changed Kenya’s famine cycles, according to the National Climate Change Response Strategy 2010.

Famines, defined as widespread food shortages that lead to significant increases in regional death rates or sudden, sharp reductions in food supplies that result in widespread hunger, used to occur every 20 years. But famines have become more frequent here in recent decades, striking in 1964, 1984 (a 20-year interval), 1996 (a 12-year interval), 2004 (an eight-year interval), 2006 (a two-year interval), and then 2007, 2008 and 2009 (one-year intervals).

As of August, 1.5 million Kenyans were deemed “acutely food insecure” and in need of food assistance through February 2015, according to the Kenya Food Security Steering Group. Thatrepresents a 13 percent increase from the 1.3 million people who needed food aid in February 2014. The steering group attributes the increase to low crop yields caused by poor rains in 2013 and 2014.

To help the Masai adapt to the changing climate, KARI develops seeds that suit the area’s soil and unpredictable weather and gives them to the herders, Barare says.

Agricultural officers teach farmers how to plant and tend the crops. Last year the herders brought in four Napier grass harvests, yielding 25,600 kilograms (56,438 pounds) of grass per hectare (2.47 acres) each time, according to a KARI report on the project. They also harvested 8,156 kilograms (17,981 pounds) of sweet potatoes per hectare.

Many traditionally nomadic Masai herders who have embraced farming of drought-tolerant crops say they no longer suffer during droughts.

Since KARI started the project two years ago, as many as 700 cattle herders in Lolgorien and Kirindon divisions are now growing drought-resistant crops.

Herdsman Samuel Ole Seme, who has been growing Napier grass for his cows since 2012, says income from his cows is consistent come rain or come shine.

He says he makes 40,000 Kenyan shillings ($451) every month from selling milk.

During the April-July drought this year, his dairy cows, fed on Napier grass growing outside his house, produced milk as usual. Machoka, the agricultural officer, gave him grass seeds supplied by KARI.

“My cows survived on Napier grass for the four months,” Seme says. “A day after the grass got finished, the rains set in.”

Napier grass regrows after being cut, so by the time he gets to the end of one row, the part he cut first has regrown, he says.

Seme says he was able to keep his 12 children in school despite the drought because his income, which comes mostly from selling milk, was not affected.

In the past, Seme used to move with his animals in search of pasture. These days he stays at home regardless of the severity of a drought, he says.

Because of the subdivision and privatization of land, the rest of Seme’s community also has become less nomadic in recent years, so he doesn’t miss out on that aspect of his community’s culture, he says.

Some herders still don’t see the need to engage in farming. John Sekut, for example, says his herd is too big to feed on Napier grass.

“I have about 800 cows and bulls,” he says. “How many acres of Napier grass would I need to grow to feed the animals even for a month?”

When drought strikes, Sekut says he prefers to transfer his animals to other areas in the county where he owns land.

He says he would not grow sweet potatoes and bananas because he does not consider them real food. The Masai’s traditional foods are meat and milk.

Machoka urges herders to reduce their livestock numbers to stop further degradation of the environment.

“In the Masai community, wealth is measured by the number of livestock someone has,” he says. “So they tend to keep many animals, which cause overgrazing.”

When a pasture is overgrazed, the grass does not have time to regrow, he says.

Machoka says Sekut would not need a large piece of land to grow fodder crops for his animals.

“Such herders only need to set aside one acre of land for farming as these crops do not occupy a lot of space,” he says.

Persuading herders to grow crops was not an easy task, Barare says. At first, most of them reacted like Sekut.

“When we started, only a few pastoralists agreed to give farming a try,” he says. “Later many others came for the seeds after they saw how those who were already farming were benefitting.”

One of the mitigation measures proposed in the National Climate Change Response Strategy is enhancing the Orphan Crops Program, in which the Ministry of Agriculture provides seeds of drought-resistant crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes and millet to farmers in arid and semi-arid areas. These crops are called orphan crops because they have long been ignored as a potential solution to food insecurity in the region.

The long-term success of mitigation strategies like the Orphan Crops Program are unclear because of funding and implementation uncertainties, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization,.

Even as local experts help herders adapt to climate change, they are also seeking ways to counter climate change itself.

KARI also gives farmers free tree seedlings so they can restore forest cover and help halt climate change, Barare says.

To expand the program and encourage more herders to embrace agro-pastoralism, KARI plans to hand the project over to the local Narok county government.

“The herders and the local government have seen the benefit of farming and are eager to take this project to the next level,” Barare says.

Seme is already planning to increase the amount of land he has allocated for farming.

“I’m expanding the land under Napier grass to one acre,” he says. “I’ve already cleared the bushes in preparation for planting.”

Currently, Seme grows Napier grass on about a quarter of an acre. The rest of his 20-acre farm is open grassland on which he grazes his animals.

“I’m glad that I gave farming a try,” he says. “No matter how severe droughts get, my family will never lack food.”


GPJ translated some interviews from Kiswahili.