Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Experimenting with Diversity

It's odd how the weather can go from very dry to very wet quite unexpectedly. During the wet season, there was sometimes too much rain all at once, which threatened to wash away crops which were about to be harvested. Rain delayed the harvest of beans, which also resulted in some losses. Then the dry season started, so after harvesting, we returned to the practice of irrigating the other crops that were planted to overlap with the harvesting, a field of watermelon. And then the dry season was interrupted by a week of torrential rain, which threatens the watermelon, due to be harvested in Late March.

With any luck, the dry weather will return and what is left of the watermelon crop, hopefully most of it, will do well. But the field is waterlogged and some of the smaller fruit and plants have been overwhelmed by the thick mud that has been stirred up. All we can do is make sure water is not collecting anywhere and that any plants and fruits that can be saved are saved. Things have been looking brighter and drier for the last two days.

And with the brighter, sunnier weather, we at Ribbon of Hope have been able to return to demonstrating solar cookers. We had a good day at Mogotio, North of Nakuru, last week before the heavy rains started. Over thirty people came to see the demonstration and the debate about whether it was or wasn't possible to cook with 'a piece of silver cardboard and a saucepan painted black' was noisy. Scepticism turned to interest as we checked the food's progress about one hour in; interest turned to amazement when we invited people to test out the result half an hour later.

Today, we went to a town called Salgaa, also North of Nakuru. Closer to 40 people turned up and asked many questions as the rice and ugali (boiled maize meal, the staple food) and sukuma wiki (kale) cooked in the hot sun. In fact, giving a lot of time to answering questions was good because many people cook things one way and one way only. Today, they saw their beloved staple food cooked without using boiling water and without stirring. The whole thing can be put on to cook while the chef attends to other things. And that's just one of the many advantages of cooking this way!

Our aim is to increase self reliance through a variety of income generation schemes and ways of reducing day to day costs. So next week, we hope to return to Salgaa and show people how to make a solar cooker. Buying one is good, because people can save a lot of money and learn a great technique. But if they could make a solar cooker themselves, they could save even more money and they would always be able to make another when the original one wears out. Someone today was asking me if it was really sustainable to sell people a solar cooker for 500 Kenyan shillings (about 4 UK pounds). Well, it is a lot more sustainable than using charcoal or wood. But being able to make these cookers, and it's not difficult, would really put the icing on the cake.

On the opposite end of the scale in terms of self reliance, there is a big problem with the country's dependence on maize for almost all their food needs. It is not an indigenous crop and, for various reasons, it is becoming less productive. Because the weather has been so unpredictable lately, it would be far better to grow more resistant crops such as millet, sorghum, amaranth and many others. These do better in challenging conditions, like drought and flooding. But they also tolerate poorer soil and require less fertilizer and pesticides, substantially reducing the costs that farmers face.

Many farmers remain too dependent on a government that has never actually done very much for them. The scandal of the subsidized maize scheme, which allowed well connected people to make money out of 'relief' food supplies while the costs to ordinary people continued to rise and around a quarter of the country faced serious shortages, was less than a year ago. But the failure of farmers to produce enough food is partly their own fault. Some try to produce cash crops that end up making money for someone or some industry, but don't make much for individual farmers. Others, most farmers in fact, rely on rain fed agriculture, rather than employing some relatively simple method to harvest rainwater.

Small farmers are, of course, in need of ready cash, no less than non-farmers. But there are also those who produce far too little food for their own family and yet also make too little from cash crops to purchase additional food. There should be enough land in Kenya for the country to be food secure, regardless of how weather patterns are changing. True, the government should do a lot more, but perhaps people shouldn't wait for their politicians to do things that it has never done before. Hence the need for anything that increases self reliance.

Sadly, I am not an experienced farmer, I have to go around asking people for advice on what to plant and how to deal with problems that arise. But I feel that the very practice of experimenting with diversity is a good thing in itself. Equally, I think people need to experiment with cooking and eating different things and cooking them in different ways. I can't claim to have many converts yet but this kind of experimenting can be done without spending very much money. And development at low cost is, I think, well worth striving for, especially given the relative lack of success with development at high cost.



Claire said...

Wow. what amazingly simple and great ideas you're advocating. I do hope they catch on well.

Simon said...

Thanks Claire. Well, people are fascinated and the demonstration certainly leaves an impression, but it will be interesting to see whether and how much that translates into people adopting this or any other intermediate technology.