Why farmers are slow to adopt smart farming

They are gambling on elusive rains for lack of funds, knowledge, inputs to adapt

In Summary

• Farmers have endured serial failed rain seasons and losses but still rely on weather

Inside a greenhouse
Inside a greenhouse

The March to May rain is about to begin in most parts of the country. By now, farmers should be in the fields, preparing their land for planting, but several seasons of disappointment have led many to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

In most parts of Kenya, the wet season that should have run from October to December last year failed. The March-May 2022 rains failed, too. The eastern and northern halves of Kenya have not had much rain since early 2020. It is, therefore, understandable that small-scale farmers don't want to get their fingers burnt, putting money and energy into something that has a likelihood of failing.

Taita Taveta county is a typical example of the fate of farmers in arid and semi-arid areas. Very little land preparation is going on due to uncertainties over whether or not it will rain. The only exception is in parts of Taveta subcounty, where farmers use irrigation water from canals and wells. The rest of the land looks dry, barren and abandoned.

Every time the meteorological department tells us there's going to be rain, we till the land and plant but the rain doesn't come
Andrew Mwambogha

Now in his 70s, Andrew Mwambogha says he has never in his life seen such a severe drought. He criticises the Kenya Meteorological Service for false promises each season. "Every time the meteorological department tells us there's going to be rain, we till the land and plant but the rain doesn't come," Mwambogha laments. Furthermore, he blames state agencies for allowing the sale of counterfeit seeds that don’t germinate even when rains are good.

Last December, following a week of promising rains, Mwambogha planted maize and cowpeas (kunde) on his farm. The rains ended as abruptly as they had started, resulting in the total loss of his maize crop. "I managed to get some vegetables from the cowpeas," Mwambogha recalls. Cowpeas are among the drought-tolerant crops recommended for semi-arid areas. Both the seeds and leaves of the plant can be eaten.

Andrew's nephew John Mkalla says maintaining his herd of goats has been costly because he has to buy hay from far away. "If it wasn't for my other businesses, I would not have afforded to buy grass to sustain the goats," Mkalla says.


On the national scene, the Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) reports that the country's total maize production declined from 42.1 million bags in 2020 to 36.7 million bags in 2021. This translates to a 12.8 per cent decrease in total production. Meanwhile, the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG) report for 2022 revealed that the maize harvest in arid and semi-arid areas was just 50 per cent of the previous yearly averages.

The decline in maize production largely explains why maize prices are on the rise. As recently as November 2018, a 90kg bag of dry maize was selling for Sh2,500. The price for the same quantity of maize is currently over Sh5,500 and rising. Increases in the price of dry maize also raise the price of processed maize flour (unga).

In one of its latest reports, KIPPRA blames the declining maize production on climate-related factors, such as unreliable rainfall, increase in temperature, drought and related events. Some 97 per cent of Kenya's agricultural land depends on rainfall; only three per cent is irrigated. Small-scale farmers produce 78 per cent of the food, but most irrigation projects are designed for large-scale producers.

In its recommendations, KIPPRA urges county and national governments to invest in irrigation. More investment should be directed towards harvesting rain and storm water. "There is also need to develop improved maize seeds that are climate-resilient," reads part of the recommendations. Farmers should adopt improved agricultural technologies, such as appropriate tillage and water management.

Climate-smart agriculture has been proposed as the only way farmers can survive climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes climate-smart agriculture as an approach to farming that increases agricultural output while adapting to climate change. Climate-smart agriculture aims to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions where possible.

The World Agroforestry Centre, an international research institution based in Nairobi, lists some of the techniques of climate-smart agriculture, such as agroforestry, intercropping, conservation agriculture, crop rotation, integrated crop-livestock management and improved water management. These are familiar terms to anyone who did basic agriculture in school.

A farmer uses a nature app
A farmer uses a nature app
Most land management practices require significant upfront expenditure that poor farmers cannot afford. Second, the non-availability of inputs in local markets can be a major obstacle
Dr Ademola Braimoh


Climate-smart irrigation techniques are designed to grow crops profitably, while using as little water as possible. Drip irrigation is one example of irrigation techniques that minimise the use of water. Other technologies that conserve water include mulching, cover cropping, land levelling and increasing the organic matter in the soil.

For large-scale commercial farmers, there are electronic sensors that measure exactly how much water is in the soil and how much is absorbed by plants. The information helps farm managers to release the exact amount of water required by the plants at a particular time. A fully automated system can be set up with sensors in the field that activate the flow of water whenever needed. Such systems can be programmed with a schedule of when to turn the water on or off, thus cutting down on labour costs.

With climate change now an accepted reality, why are farmers not changing from the old ways of farming? Dr Ademola Braimoh, a sustainability scientist, says farmers often face huge social and economic barriers that prevent them from fully implementing climate-smart agriculture. "First, most land management practices require significant upfront expenditure that poor farmers cannot afford. Second, the non-availability of inputs in local markets can be a major obstacle," Braimoh says.

Lack of information on the benefits of alternative farming techniques and limited knowledge are major constraints in developing countries such as Kenya. When new technology clashes with traditional beliefs concerning agriculture, adoption of that technology will face resistance. Lastly, improved irrigation and communal pastures require collective action. There must be a willingness for people to work together because such techniques cannot be implemented by one person acting alone.

A separate study published in December 2021 showed that Kenyan farmers are aware of environmental change and climate-smart practices but faced certain limitations when it came to implementation. According to the Journal of Agricultural Systems, the limitations include uncertainty in product prices, lack of land ownership by female farmers, scarcity of arable land and simply lack of capital or willingness to invest.

The long-term outlook is that most parts of Kenya will continue experiencing unpredictable weather for the foreseeable future. Droughts will be more frequent and last longer. Anyone doing farming has no choice but to invest in climate-smart agriculture. Farming while completely dependent on rainfall is similar to gambling, and as every gambler knows, the chances of losing are far greater than the possibility of success.

If climate change had a face, it would be the pregnant woman trekking 15km to fetch water a day before she gives birth. Or the farmer who lost nearly 200 cows. Or the pastoralist wondering after a dry Christmas, “Did God forget us?” Jalio Tales is an infotainment channel rewriting how news is told in the digital age. Your time and support is most appreciated. Please follow the producer via: Twitter: TikTok: Instagram: #droughtiness #livingorsurviving #jaliotales

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