Climate Change Harming Potato Farmers in Elgeyo Marakwet

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

This is my first report on climate change and its impact on Kenyan farmers. Across the world, climate change is rapidly becoming the biggest threat to agricultural production, affecting millions of farmers' lives. In Kenya, droughts are becoming more frequent, rainfall is unpredictable and irregular, temperatures are increasing, and soils are becoming less fertile.

Elgeyo Marakwet County is, without a doubt, a beautiful postcard-like region in Kenya's Rift Valley region known for its productive land and potato farming. Agriculture is the main economic activity in the region, contributing 66% to households' income. The County produces both food and cash crops that vary with agroecological zones. About 50% of the people are engaged in the potato value chain, with women and youth being the most active participants.

I spent a day in Labot, a small town two hours north of Eldoret Town. I met Hellen, a small-scale farmer and mother of two, and Kipchirchir, a 21-year-old high school student. We spoke about their lives as farmers, potato farming, and climate change. They both agreed that the climate in Labot has changed with longer drought periods and heavier rains. There is clear evidence of deforestation around their farms and signs of mudslides from saturated soils. They were both disappointed with lowering potato yields and blamed the high fertilizer cost as the leading cause. Hellen has allocated three of her five-acre farm to potatoes. She uses four bags of fertilizer (50kg each) per acre and harvests 60 bags of potatoes packed into 50kg for retail. Kipchirchir is doing better. He uses two bags of fertilizer (50kg) per acre and harvests 70 bags of potato per acre. "The highest yield that has ever been achieved in this area is 120 bags per acre, and that is my target," said Kipchirchir. According to Potato Magazine (2019)1, Elgeyo Marakwet County can produce an average of 150 bags/acre.

Hellen and Kipchirchir love their trade, but their efforts only get them half the potential harvest possible. So, why can't these farmers get optimum productivity? Is fertilizer really the issue or is it climate change, or is it both? I learned that it is common among farmers in this area to recycle potato seeds up to the third harvest on the same piece of land. After that, they swap seeds with neighboring farmers and repeat the cycle. Over time, the seed quality is compromised, and the farmer can no longer achieve the desired yields. Kipchirchir also mentioned that rains have become intense and heavy, resulting in high disease prevalence. He complained that potato blight has become more prevalent, and he now uses fungicides to keep it at bay. The region is prone to frost and sudden downpours, which cause soil erosion and sometimes landslides that have reduced soil fertility over time. Poor management during harvesting and weeding have also contributed to farmer losses in this region. They both estimate that 50% of their production is lost between poor farm practices and lack of demand for small potato sizes. I saw a mountain of small potatoes rotting for lack of market while I knew I could sell them in Europe or the US for at least EUR2-3 per kilo. It really hurts.

The average cost of producing an acre of potato in Elgeyo Marakwet is KES 27,325 (US$270), with 25% going into land preparation and planting and a further 28% for harvesting and packing. About half the total cost is allocated to crop management and inputs, including fertilizers, weeding, pesticides, etc. According to local farmers, most of the produce is harvested on-demand and sold at farm gate, saving them storage and transport costs. I asked about the market. "Brokers come to our farms to buy potatoes," said Hellen, "however, prices fluctuate over seasons" she continued. "In a bad season, when the supply is high, you can sell a 50kg bag for a dismal KES 400 (US$4), and between January and February, usually considered a good season, you can sell a 50 kg bag at KES 3,000 (US$30). However, it is a challenge to plant potatoes during the dry period (Dec – Feb) unless you irrigate," she added.

Future Climate And How It Can Affect Elgeyo Marakwet and Irish Potatoes

Source: MoALF.2017. Climate Risk Profile for Elgeyo Marakwet County.

Climate projections by CIAT as shown above shows an expected doubling in the number of drought stress days to approximately 50 consecutive days each season. Farmers must adapt, otherwise, there is going to be greater decline in yields and food insecurity.

ADAPTA In Action

ADAPTA has partnered with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Bioversity International to develop a novel climate score model to help us assess the climate change risk of a particular area and crop and develop a climate action plan to enhance Farmers’ resilience while mitigating default risks for ADAPTA.

Farmers require innovative approaches that address the myriad of challenges they confront day to day. In this partnership, we will leverage on the use of satellite imaging technologies to highlight problematic areas (soils, water, crop etc.) within farms and advice on the best corrective measures that can be applied, and these measures will be monitored for their effectiveness. ADAPTA will also incorporate regenerative agricultural practices such as agroforestry, crop rotation, composting etc. into their system to help these farmers become more resilient.

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