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One of Kenya's luckier farmers tells why so many farmers there are out of luck

Benard Mwenja is one of the luckier farmers in Kenya. He's still able to grow and harvest crops – something he's been doing for three decades to earn his livelihood in a country where agriculture is the backbone of the economy.

The majority of farmers in Kenya are smallholders, and they rely on their crops not only for income but as a source of food for their families. But it's become harder than ever to make a living, said Mwenja, who is 69.

One problem is the erratic rainfall due to the changing climate. Mwenja has reserve supplies of water saved up in reservoirs to draw upon when the rains falter.

"It took me a long time to dig up the earthen water pans on my farm," says Mwenja, referring to the pond-like craters dug in various parts of his farm to collect rainwater. "It was a lot of work because I was digging by hand."

He uses a mix of drip and sprinkler irrigation systems to water his crops. The water mainly flows with the help of gravity, although in some instances he needs to use a water pump, which he says has been expensive to purchase and maintain. "My neighbors were doubtful if all that work would pay off," he says.

But it has. His neighbor's corn plants – a staple crop – are wilted, their bean plants are drying up.

"They have asked us to cut their maize stalks and give to our cows, because they will not be able to harvest anything," he says. "They can now see that the reservoirs have become very useful."

Benard Mwenja's reserve water supply has helped him weather the drought better than many of his neighbors. He is now focusing on more stable crops like kale, carrots and onions instead of relying only on corn with its fluctuating prices.
/ Michael Kaloki for NPR
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Michael Kaloki for NPR
Benard Mwenja's reserve water supply has helped him weather the drought better than many of his neighbors. He is now focusing on more stable crops like kale, carrots and onions instead of relying only on corn with its fluctuating prices.

And it's not just the lack of rain that's making life tough for Kenya's 10 million farmers, who represent about a fifth of the population. It seems as if everything is conspiring against them. The rising cost of fuel, the lack of fertilizer and even the war in Ukraine all pose new obstacles.

"We have been planting cereals for many years, but it is now becoming difficult to plant cereals because of the prices," Mwenja says with a frown on his face. Small-scale corn famers across the country have called on both the government and private millers to increase the purchase price of corn to be more in line with the rising cost of living. Because of corn's fluctuating price, Mwenja seems to have more faith in his other crops, such as kale, carrots and onions. His kale's big leaves now look lush and green, ready for picking.

But he is concerned about the effect of erratic weather on his farm. "In this area, because of the weather change, people are not even planting vegetables. We are doing the vegetables because I have water reservoirs," he says.

Many of Mwenja's neighbors have suffered the effects of poor rainfall. Countries in the Horn of Africa are experiencing their worst drought in 40 years, fueling a hunger crisis. According to a report by the international aid agency Oxfam, over 21 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia face acute hunger. The report also forecasts that recurrent droughts will continue to aggravate the region's fragility, causing further crop failures, food instability, losses of livelihoods and large-scale internal displacement.

The government is promising help. On Sept. 13, Dr. William Ruto, Kenya's newly elected president, pledged to tackle climate change in his inaugural speech. Ruto acknowledged that citizens of Kenya were suffering "the consequences of climate emergency," and suggested he would encourage the use of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels. "Kenya is on transition to clean energy that will support jobs, local economies and sustainable industrialization," he said.

That is not the only issue that farmers hope Ruto addresses. Fuel prices in the country recently shot up after the president decided to partially scrap some of the fuel subsidies the government had earlier put in place. In his speech, Ruto raised concerns that the subsidies had become too costly and prone to abuse.

"This will definitely have an effect on us here on the farms," Mwenja says. "It will become more expensive to hire a tractor to come and till the land."

And many farmers use public transportation – such as buses or "boda bodas" (motorcycle taxis) — to go into town to pick up fertilizer. "It will be more expensive for me to bring it home, because public transport is likely to go up as a result of the fuel subsidy being removed," says Mwenja.

On top of rising fuel prices, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has also made obtaining crucial fertilizer even harder, leading Mwenja to question just how sustainable farming will be. A significant proportion of Kenya's fertilizer comes from that region, such as di-ammonium phosphate (DAP), the world's most widely used phosphorus fertilizer for crop nutrition. Because of the war, a disruption in the supply chain has caused the price of fertilizer to shoot up by as much as 30%, leading to an outcry from farmers across the Kenya.

"The war in Ukraine has had a really big affect on us farmers," Mwenja says, looking across his land. "All around me here, my neighbors planted without using fertilizer, because they could not afford it. Their crop has failed this time around." And while Mwenja was fortunate enough to be able to buy fertilizer, all of these rising expenses has forced him to go without some things he would usually have bought for his family.

"Nowadays we have had to adjust our diet and cut back on buying things like meat," Mwenja says. "I was also building a better farmhouse, but now I have had to stop, because I cannot afford to continue at the moment."

Mwenja also has a large number of extended family members who rely on him financially. "There are 20 people who depend on me, " he says.

In mid-September, a few days after Ruto's inauguration, the National Treasury of Kenya released the equivalent of $29 million U.S. dollars for a program to provide subsidized fertilizer to farmers in order to help cushion them from rising prices. "We are thankful to the government," says Mwenja, "but we are not sure how long they will be able to sustain the subsidy."

Abraham Muthogo, a Nairobi-based economist, described the move by the government as "a good thing for now." But, he says, "Subsidies are a short-term measure. It is the proverbial 'stopping the patient bleeding.'"

Muthogo hopes the government can find longer-term solutions, such as "providing incentives to local entrepreneurs or encouraging international fertilizer producers to come and set up plants here in the country." He says local production would greatly reduce costs and shield farmers from situations like the war in Ukraine.

"I am hopeful for a bright future," says Mwenja. "If the government is able to sustain the subsidized fertilizer program, it will help us farmers get back on our feet. If we work hand in hand with the government, we can help mitigate the effects of climate change and hopefully ensure we have enough water for our crops."

Michael Kaloki lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a freelance reporter with a keen interest in matters related to community development and climate change.

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Michael Kaloki