Improving nutrition in Kenya through farm and landscape modelling

Mary Adoyo feeding her cattle. (Photo credit C.Timler, May 2015.)

Mary Adoyo feeding her cattle. (Photo credit C.Timler, May 2015.)

Mary Adoyo* is a Kenyan smallholder farmer in the Masana sub-location of Vihiga county in Western Kenya. She manages the family farm alone while her husband works in Nairobi sending monthly remittances home. Their maize, grown on one acre, supplies her family with maize meal for only six months. Their farm also produces beans, bananas, sweet potatoes, avocados, mangoes, papayas, lettuce, kale, and traditional Kenyan vegetables such as mitoo (Crotalaria spp). Many of these products are sold locally to generate money to purchase food to feed herself and her six children. Mary also supplements the family income by working on nearby farms.

She also grows Napier fodder to feed her Zebu cow and calf and four goats, which produce one to two litres of milk per day, a litre of which the family consumes at home and what remains is sold locally. Mary has a small flock of chickens and sells about four chickens per year, keeping one around Christmas-time for the family to eat.

Baseline studies done by Bioversity International  in the region show that, on average, women only eat four out of nine food groups daily. Mary and her family’s dietary diversity is low. They drink sweet, milky tea for breakfast, and eat maize (in the form of ugali), accompanied by green leafy vegetables cooked with onions or tomatoes for lunch and/or dinner.

In November 2014, Mary explained that the small size of her land was a major constraint to their food security. This is a ubiquitous problem in Vihiga county; population growth has meant that farm sizes have decreased as families subdivide their land among their children. That the answer lies in intensification of agricultural production is clear, but what are the options to intensify both the diversity and the production to improve food production and close the nutritional and seasonal food gaps thereby reducing mal- and under-nutrition? In addition, can intensification be done in an ecologically sustainable manner?

In Kenya, an emphasis on the intensification of maize has led to low crop diversity in farmers’ fields. Increasing the agrobiodiversity on a farm has trade-offs, but possibly also synergies to improve the livelihood of farmer households. Many factors can contribute to an optimal level of diversity: cultivation costs; production potential; nutritional quality; market opportunities; and farmer acceptance.

A whole farm bio-economic model can evaluate new farm configurations of existing and novel crops as well as animal-types under various future scenarios. These future configurations can be evaluated using a variety of indicators: agronomic; economic; nutritional; and environmental. For a broader view of the effects at the landscape level, spatially explicit modelling tools can evaluate the effects of farm changes and evaluate indicators such as dietary diversity on a landscape scale.

Participatory mapping exercise during a smallholder farmer focus group in Masana sub-location, Kenya, May 2015. (C.Timler)

Participatory mapping exercise during a smallholder farmer focus group in Masana sub-location, Kenya, May 2015. (C.Timler)

In order to set up such models, a diverse (and large) amount of data is required. This was collected during field work in November 2014 by the researchers from Wageningen University, with funding from Humidtropics and A4NH. Detailed farm data was gathered from Mary and other farmers who live on neighboring farms. Together, this data will be used to examine indicators on a landscape level for a group of neighboring farmers.

Farmers’ local knowledge is crucial to setting up and exploring future scenarios, and hence, a follow-up visit took place in May 2015. During two Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), farmers took part in a participatory mapping exercise to discover how resources from their landscape are collected, used, and traded. The farmers also explored the limitations and potential benefits (both economic and environmental) of growing new crops and keeping new animal types, and consequently, mapping out how they would redesign their own farms. Their input provided useful information for the FarmDESIGN model, used to evaluate such new enterprises.

Researchers at Wageningen University will analyse the data collected and will explore options discussed in focus groups based on objectives provided by the farmers. In doing so, the researchers can determine whether a farm such as Mary Adoyo’s can be redesigned to become more ecologically intensive while, at the same time, providing her family with increased food security, additional diversity in their diets, and improved nutrition and livelihoods. In addition, the researchers can identify trade-offs and synergies inherent in new landscape configurations, thereby contributing to improved ecosystem services and landscape coherence for land-constrained farmers.

* Pseudonym used for privacy reasons

(Guest blogpost written by Carl Timler, Wageningen University.)