From nursing dreams to seed saviour: Can one woman transform Kenya's food security?

From nursing dreams to seed saviour: Can one woman transform Kenya's food security?

Phoebe Mwangangi

Phoebe Mwangangi's home, tucked away off the Makindu-Wote highway in the semi-arid Makueni County, is more than a residence. When her homestead’s gates swing open, vitality begins to unfold. Her story is one of resilience, innovation, and a deep love for her community.

A straight, gravelled walkway ends at her house’s doorstep. On the gate’s left side lie fish ponds, with fish darting in perpetual dance beneath a canopy of jungle-green mesh. At the pond side, tents have been pitched. 

On this day, she has guests from the World Bank and scientists from the ‘Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa’ (AICCRA) project. A team of agro-ecologists, gene-bank experts, seed breeders, and economists joins over two hundred farmers at her farm.

On the right side, against a stone-walled fence, is a conspicuous wooden engraving sign, ‘Wonder Farm’. This sign welcomes guests to one of the ten demo farms under AICCRA. Others are in Kitui and Taita-Taveta counties. She calls it a ‘school’. On the far end, there is a small dam brimming with water. 

Once-destructive flash floods now flow purposefully toward this life-giving reservoir. Thick, black pipes slowly empty the dam. They snake through her farm, dripping water on crops at intervals.

The reservoir, a key installation, exemplifies the climate-smart farming technique of rainwater harvesting. This farm, located in Ngukuni village in Makindu Ward, has since become a lifeline for locals and a symbol of resilience.

“Farmers were asked to pick their teacher, and they settled on me because they saw what I was already doing. The training came in handy and has been instrumental in my transformational journey,” she says. 

Through the program’s training, she introduced her peers to drought-tolerant and early-maturing seed farming. In the training, she says, she was acquainted with essential Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) practices, including rainwater harvesting. And indeed, she has a dam in the midst of a dusty locality. 

She also practices intercropping with legumes, crop diversification, conservation tilling, and pest and disease control, integrating her rich indigenous knowledge of drought-resistant farming.

“Even early planting is a climate-smart technique, and even sharing weather-related information is key,” Mrs. Mwangangi said, adding, “I found teaching farmers fulfilling, and I set aside an acre on my farm as a demo farm. I hope you will enjoy your short tour.”

Her five-acre farm, growing pearl millet, sorghum, cowpeas, beans, pigeon peas, green grams, and pixies, tells the story of years of citizen-led research. It is also a weekly meeting spot for farmers and a sanctuary for those seeking to end hunger.

“These indigenous seeds are not easy to find," she explains, pointing to frustrations in drought-resistant crop farming. "My parents were farmers, and after chasing dreams of nursing and teaching, I found myself back in farming. Thousands of farmers have learned here."

In her prime, Mrs. Mwangangi wanted to be a nurse. Then her thoughts turned to teaching. But fate offered her a chance at a job as a veterinarian, but she quit. Today, she is an indigenous seed banker. 

Her entry into seed banking was to end the struggles in finding rare drought-resistant seeds of sorghum and millet, whose flour she made porridge and served this writer. She says quality seeds are becoming rare to find. 

“My father would struggle to find indigenous seeds, and it is still a challenge today. It is also costly to buy hybrid seeds, which many farmers cannot afford. I want to stop this. I want a system of indigenous seeds that works for farmers in my community,” she says.

Her venture, however, has faced numerous challenges. Invasive pests and diseases unresponsive to traditional methods like charcoal ash have forced her to use agrochemicals, which worry her due to their impact.

“When I use agrochemicals, I delay harvesting my crops for days. Experts have told me that the chemicals are harmful and warned us against their use, but we have no choice. 

“A few years ago, I would apply ash to vegetables in the morning and harvest them for use in the evening. We’ve been using ash, but it’s failing,” she laments. 

Mr. Felix Jomo, an agroecologist at APSID Consulting Ltd., warns that resistant pests threaten food security, citing the recent fall in armyworm invasion.

“Agrochemical overuse leads to pest resistance, but there is also climate-instigated resistance. It behoves us to think about biological and natural solutions to boost productivity,” Mr. Jomo told Citizen Digital on the sidelines of the forum. 

At a farmers’ forum in Nairobi in the lead-up to a visit to her farm, the World Bank announced an additional US $100 million (approximately Sh13 billion) to continue the program. The next phase of the program, Katie Freeman, a senior agricultural economist at the World Bank, said, was aimed at including youth and women, with a reliance on climate-focused information sharing for optimal production.

“The project's next phase of this World Bank-backed project focuses on empowering young people to lead the development of inclusive and gender-responsive climate-smart agribusiness. Women will play a central role in this push towards sustainability,” Mrs. Freeman told scientists and farmers at the KICC during a consultative meeting.

As a pioneer in climate-smart agriculture, Mrs. Mwangangi was among the first farmers in Makueni County to adopt these practices. The World Bank was funding a climate-smart agriculture project through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in Kitui, Makueni, and Taita Taveta counties. 

Hers went full-scale in 2021, when she was selected to join 24 other women for a climate-smart agriculture training program.

Despite the recognition she’s received from conferences, Phoebe remains humble. "I'm not important, but useful," she says with a smile when asked if she thinks the government understands her role in food security. To her neighbours, she is more than just a farmer; she is a teacher, mentor, and trusted guide.

As celebrated as she is, her destiny in seed production is clothed in uncertainty. She is not certified by the regulator, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), which assesses seeds before they are offered for sale.   

“I am a member of Makueni Seed Growers, but we are apprehensive of the high cost of the regulator’s procedural bottlenecks, which we estimated could cost in excess of Sh100,000,” she says.

The majority of smallholder farmers in Kenya use seeds that are exchanged between peers through informal systems. However, these systems are being put under pressure by the Seed and Plant Varieties Act (2012). 

The legal provision only allows certified seed companies to multiply and sell seeds. Farmers are only legally allowed to buy seeds from these companies, their distributors, or agents.

Through her group, she says, during the last harvest season, they collected over two tons of seeds produced on their farms. They sold the seeds to AICCRA. 

Dr. Henry Ojulong, a seed breeder at ICRISAT, advises that the law needs to be changed to spur indigenous food production. 

“Seed companies have prioritized profits over food security. Seed farmers like Phoebe need to be certified to produce seeds with the help of scientists," said Dr Ojulong. 

Kenya’s decision to criminalize informal seed exchange and sharing is not just impacting the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers; it's also posing a grave threat to her food security. It has also been met with resistance from civil organisations, which demand a review of the policy.

Civil organizations demand a review of the policy, arguing that erratic weather patterns and the complexities of seed certification necessitate a rethinking of the regulations.

This year, farmers have lost crops to floods, signalling a looming food crisis. These floods follow a severe drought never seen before in four decades. By 2023, food stress had struck over thirty-one of the country's forty-seven counties.

In 2012, the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act was enacted, criminalizing the use or sharing of uncertified seeds. Smallholder farmers face harsh penalties, including imprisonment for up to two years, a one million-shilling fine, or both. Compliance requires seed producers to undergo inspections at limited KEPHIS seed testing labs.

“There is a growing need to review seed farming regulations. Many hybrid seed production companies don’t engage in drought-resistant seed production due to meagre profits,” Dr Ojulong told Citizen Digital at Phoebe’s farm.

However, Dr. Ojulong offers a ray of hope. He reveals ongoing efforts by the private sector, academia, and international NGOs to engage with the Ministry of Agriculture's Seed Regulation Committee.

This dialogue, he says, is geared towards addressing the impasse and advocating for a review of seed purity standards, especially for indigenous seeds grown by farmers following recommended practices.

Dr. Ojulong suggests lowering the purity threshold from 95 percent to 90 percent, making it more achievable for farmers. By fostering dialogue and collaboration among stakeholders, there is optimism for finding solutions that support smallholder farmers and ensure food security for all Kenyans.


Wonder Farm AICCRA

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