From monotony to diversity
When the Kyalo family learned how to grow traditional vegetables, their dull daily diet of maize, beans and cabbage was transformed into a feast of flavor and nutrition
Machakos County lies in the semi-arid region of Kenya, in a stunning landscape with rocky hills stretched out over a vast area. The majority of its one million people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but agriculture in Machakos has its challenges. There are two short rainy seasons per year, prolonged droughts are common, and rains are generally unpredictable. As a result, many people are food insecure and poor, especially in rural areas. The staple food is maize, sometimes cooked with beans. Malnutrition is common and affects children’s growth and development.
Festus Kyalo is a farmer in Katulani village in Machakos. He is married and has a son, and he wants to feed his family well. His wife Anastasia used to buy whatever vegetable she could find in the market—most of the time only cabbage. She could only shop once a week, because the fare to travel to the market in Matuu was expensive. If she bought more vegetables, there was a risk that they would spoil at home because the family has no electricity or refrigerator.
Six months ago, a farmer group in which the Kyalos are members was invited by the local administration to participate in a meeting of the Homegarden Scaling Project, a joint initiative of the World Vegetable Center, Farm Concern International and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). During the meeting, the group learned about the perils of malnutrition, and ways of overcoming it by growing traditional African vegetables in home gardens. The project needed a few farmers who could train other farmers, and Festus was nominated by his group members for the role. They told him: “Get education for us.” He received training in good agronomic practices for vegetable production, such as seed selection, use of improved of varieties, land preparation from seed bed to planting, weeding, spacing, manure application, and disease management.
After the training he set aside a 10 m x 20 m plot on his farm and planted seed of kale, pumpkin, cowpea, and two varieties of amaranth, which he received through the project. He followed the instructions for proper spacing. His first harvest came from the thinning of amaranth plants. The family was thrilled about the good taste of the improved varieties. Anastasia said: “I wish I had known this earlier. I used to collect amaranth from the wild, I didn’t know about these improved varieties and that they could be grown in plots.” The other vegetables also have grown well and she now harvests a different vegetable every day. The family meals have become more varied and nutritious, with larger portions of vegetables and smaller portions of maize. “I don’t have to buy vegetables anymore,” said Anastasia. “My household spending has reduced, I only need to buy oil.” Festus appreciates the fact that he is sure of the quality and safety of the food his family now consumes. He is sure his food is free of agrochemical residues because the vegetables are home-grown. “The vegetables people buy in the market are often unsafe because of those residues,” he said. “You can’t tell the safe ones from the contaminated ones.”
Now that he has realized the potential of growing his own vegetables, Festus has stepped up his game. “I have a dream: I want the supply the whole Matuu market with vegetables,” he said. “I want to set aside one acre of my farm for growing vegetables to achieve this. Vegetables are in high demand—neighbors are coming to my farm and asking if they can buy some. I have already sold some vegetables from the amaranth plot, which produces a lot. What I need to improve now is my water harvesting system, so that I can irrigate the vegetables during the dry spells.”
Over the past two years, Festus has dug a well on his farm that is now 47 feet deep. Whenever he has time he digs it a bit deeper. In addition, he and a friend have dug channels in his farm and a big pit to direct rainwater from his farm into a big pond. It fills up completely after two or three days of good rain. He has decided to double the depth of the pond so that he can double the amount of water for irrigation.
Festus has become a community trainer and teaches other group members as well as other famers in the village. He says other farmers sometimes approach him with a problem. They complain that they were given vegetable seed kits by the project, but the amount of seed is not sufficient to grow large plots. He advised them to grow and save their own seeds, and multiply seeds every season. If they become good at it, they can even sell seeds to other farmers. Growing an acre of vegetables should be possible for everyone, as long as you are committed.
I used to collect amaranth from the wild. I didn’t know about these improved varieties and that they could be grown in plots.
Contributor: Ralph Roothaert, AVRDC Eastern and Southern Africa, Arusha, Tanzania