Lessons from Machakos: How a poor Kenyan county where it rains once in every 3 years was able to change its fortunes as the country goes through another needless drought

How a poor Kenyan county where it rains once in every 3 years was able to change its fortunes as the country goes through another needless drought (Capital FM)
  • As a biting drought wreaks havoc in at least 12 counties causing an unprecedented food crisis that is quickly turning into a national humanitarian disaster, Machakos, once the poster child of famine in Kenya is food secure.
  • In Turkana, which is the most affected by drought, the County government has warned that more than 800,000 residents are battling hunger and risk starvation if no urgent measures are put in place to save them.
  • How did a county where it rains only once every 3 years and drought occurs once in every 4 years manage to turn its fortunes around?

For decades, the cast was different but the script was the same, Ukambani which comprises of Machakos, Kitui and Makueni counties would be all over the news as hunger and starvation took a toll on the poor residents who by then looked like wrenched creatures from another planet the minute the Kenyan skies failed to open up.

Hunger has no dignity and knows no class or nationality being the underlying theme silently beamed across the whole world.

Ten years later, however, the script is completely different and a once ‘wrenched people’ today stand strong and healthy and are looked upon to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters currently ravaged by drought.

As a biting drought wreaks havoc in at least 12 counties causing an unprecedented food crisis that is quickly turning into a national humanitarian disaster, Machakos, once the poster child of famine in Kenya is food secure.

“I also noticed that the cows in the area are very healthy. The homestead I visited had 5 full-grown, healthy cows and there was a good reserve of straw for them to feed on (filling a storage space of about 20 sqm). Other homesteads had released their cows which were roaming for pasture.” Miriam Mwende, a reporter with PulseLive told Business Insider SSA after a weekend trip to Machakos, Katangi, which borders Kitui County.

Miriam says while the area has a lot of shrubs and gets extremely hot during the day and a bit chilly at night, locals reported a good harvest in the past farming season and it was evidenced by full silos.

Like most counties away from the capital city, roads are very poor but the area has plenty of good soil, red volcanic soil to be specific meaning the picture can even be rosier.

As you digest that, there is even a bigger question: Just how did a county where it rains only once every 3 years and drought occurs once in every 4 years manage to turn its fortunes around?

According to Climate-data.org, the county receives an average annual rainfall is 830 mm.

The root cause of Machakos and much of Ukambani region full silos, brimming baskets and fat cows lies in its watertight food policy powered by devolution.

Machakos governor, Alfred Mutua, who has stewarded the county since the onset of devolution, says he decided to launch sustainable food policies “to end the shame of food relief.”

“Over a few years and again this time after the county launched the programs, we have remained food secure,” said Mutua.

When he took office in 2013, Mutua pledged to eliminate perennial food shortage by putting in place an ambitious agriculture subsidy program, water harvesting and expansion of economic welfare of the county’s approximately 1.2 million people.

In 2014, the governor mooted the famous Machakos comprehensive water and food security program, which saw huge budgetary allocations towards the provision of water for both domestic and subsistence farming, as well as the expansion of arable land through the provision of free tractors in all 40 wards across the county.

“Over 7,335 households have benefitted from the free ploughing and this has led to bumper harvests,” said Mutua.

The county government claims it has so far been sunk 420 boreholes at the village levels to enable the public to access clean drinking water. To ensure no pupil is thirsty, the county government has been busy providing schools with 10,000-litre tanks

“Access to water is a right and not a privilege. We have also sunk over 400 boreholes and built weir’s across seasonal rivers to retain water when it rains,” said Mutua.

While all these food and water programs enough to make an NGO official swell with pride, were going on and are going on, one then wonders where the rest of the affected Governors were doing.

“In my assessment, locals manage to stay food secure due to good farming practice as well as naturally fertile soils. They have discovered which crops do well and they bank on those during the rainy season.” Says Miriam.

In Turkana, which is the most affected by drought, the County government has warned that more than 800,000 residents are battling hunger and risk starvation if no urgent measures are put in place to save them.

As in most cases of drought, the most affected are elderly women and children who are unable to travel long distances to get food rations.

What is even more baffling is that in all this needless misery is that drought is not an unprecedented catastrophe like Cyclone Idai, which has wreak havoc in southern Africa, affecting hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, Kenya and much of these counties knew drought was coming and were adequately warned in time.

Mr Francis Loropiyae, a community leader in Kamekui, says residents first raised the alarm a few weeks ago, but no one took them seriously.

“Do we have any leaders in this country?” Loropiyae wonders.

Now, for many of them, the situation has grown from bad to worse as food stores have run dry and help might come too late for the elderly, the young, and the sick.

“The situation is out of control, yet no one wants to listen to us. Some are saying we are lying, but you can see for yourselves. Some leaders came here last week, but when we tried to tell them about this situation, we were told to keep quiet.”

What is even more sickening is just a few hundred kilometres away, in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia counties, farmers are drowning in maize, and have for months been literally begging the government to buy the stock, illustrating how mismanagement of resources in one end of the country is affecting those who live elsewhere.

As early as last December, a US-funded food security monitoring network warned that dry conditions in parts of Kenya were likely to result in significantly smaller harvests in the first few months of this year.

Crop production in Somalia and Kenya is expected to be at least 30 per cent below average, and pasture and water availability is likely to be well below average throughout the region,” the East Africa alert issued by the Famine Early Warning System noted.

“Should this forecast come to fruition, historical trends indicate that food security outcomes could rapidly worsen. Humanitarians should prepare for an increase in need throughout 2019,” the network, which is operated by the US Agency for International Development, urged.

The government led by one Uhuru Kenyatta heard them well they just didn’t care to listen. On Monday, after days of denial, the government finally announced a Sh2 billion funding to facilitate ongoing food relief programs and water trucking in the 13 counties.

Keeping in mind what thousands of poor Kenyans have already endured as much as they welcome the government move, the whole exercise sounds forced and ‘too little too late.

An estimated 1.1 million Kenyans are facing starvation in Samburu, Marsabit, Garissa, Isiolo, Mandera, Wajir, Baringo, Kilifi, Tana River, West Pokot, Makueni, Kajiado, and Kwale.

Rain-fed agriculture accounts for about 60% of global and 90% for Sub-Saharan African (SSA) staple food production. Over 80% of the population in SSA depends on rain-fed agriculture as their livelihood source and Turkana and much of Kenya is not any different.

However, with the onset of climate change, this cannot seriously be allowed to go on, doing so would be akin to suicide and already one too many lives have been lost.

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