Agronomist Rachael Ngina in an interview with Standard Farm Kenya has smitten social media users with her farming skills in Turkana County.
Yet, six years ago, had someone suggested that she would be excellent at farming she would have laughed it off.
Ngina grew up in Kayole – enclosed by the concrete jungle that is Nairobi City. Farming was as alien to her as Kayole would be to a countryside native.
After high school she wanted to study commerce at university. “I was going in as a regular student. I had 39 points. But to study commerce I needed 40,” she told Jonah Onyango.
Agricultural courses were within reach though. Instead of missing out completely on a university education she resolved to apply to study horticulture at Egerton University.
Horticulture sounded feisty and less farm intensive. Only for her to discover in the first few weeks that as part of the curriculum she would be forced to conduct actual farming activities such as tilling land, weeding, pruning and so on.
“I did not want to do that kind of work. I had never pictured myself doing that. I knew right away that I wouldn’t survive,” she said.
She jumped ship and moved to Agribusiness. “I told myself that I would be fine with business in agriculture but not the actual farming,” she said.
In 2017, Ngina was accepted into a study programme – meant for agricultural students – at the Arava International Centre for Agricultural Training (AICAT) in Israel.
“I deferred my last semester at university in 2018 to attend the programme,” Rachael said. For 11 months she studied how to grow crops like onions, pumpkins, pomelos, watermelons and a few more – under dry conditions.
Why was she interested in the programme? She too does not know. She, however, did meet her obligations as a student: attending class and even doing farm work. For this, she would receive a diploma in general agriculture.
Ngina came back home, from Israel, in June 2019. She took a two-week rest then took off to Turkana. “In Turkana I was joining an Israeli NGO, linked to AICAT, that aims to help Turkana people overcome food insecurity,” she said.
It has been more than a year since Ngina went to Turkana. She is loving every bit of her work. Ironically, a big part of it involves actual farming: tilling with a hoe, slashing with a panga, breaking hard earth with a forked jembe and so on.
“I now love it,” she told Jonah, not sure exactly why she abhorred it in her earlier years. Ngina is 25. She is short and slender in stature but well-endowed in the brain. She is a volunteer with Furrows in the Desert – the NGO.
Her work involves training Turkana residents on how to excel in farming food crops in spite of the harsh climate.
“I grew up watching news of hunger in Turkana. You mention Turkana and the first thing that comes to mind is people dying because they can’t access food.
“Israel taught me that farming is not dependent on the climate. The whole of Israel is a desert – with average daytime temperatures nearing 50°C. Everything that grows in Israel is watered and tended to expertly. The country is food sufficient.
“Turkana, compared to Israel, is a much-better place to do farming considering that in some Israel imports soil on which they do farming. When I decided to go to Turkana I strongly felt that locals would benefit from what I had learnt about farming while at AICAT,” she added.
Dryland farming, she says, is not only possible: it is being done in many parts of the world. Part of her work in Turkana is to explain to the people just how to get it done. This is how she says it is done.
You need water
Arid and semi-arid areas (ASAL) in Kenya suffer water scarcity. Crop farming is impossible without water. “Water is vital for life. All living things need water to grow and stay alive. Just like human beings cannot live without water so do crops,” Ngina says.
In ASAL areas sources of water can be streams and rivers. But these are often seasonal. Wells have proven handy at times but they can only yield so much water.
The best water solution, Ngina says, would be a borehole: hundreds of meters below the ground. Boreholes produce lots of water year round.
In Turkana, Furrows in the Desert have partnered with St. Paul’s Missionaries, who Ngina says settle trained farmers and dig boreholes for them.
“The cost of digging a borehole is high: the average person wouldn’t afford it. That is where organisations like St Paul’s Missionaries come in,” Ngina says.
Get yourself drip irrigation system
Furrows in the Desert, Ngina says, provides free training on crop production to the people of Turkana. Each trainee, upon finishing the course, is gifted with a full irrigation kit. “The kit comprises a pump, safety gear, drip irrigation pipes and a storage tank,” she explained.
Drip irrigation, she says, delivers the exact amount of water needed by the crops. The water is also delivered directly to the plant and thus wastage is greatly minimized.
Be active and hands-on. Don’t be lazy
You want to reap big from a farm in ASAL areas? You better be ready to put in the hours. Dryland farming, Ngina says, demands that the farmer shows dedication. “You have to be there yourself; you cannot pay someone else to do the job for you,” she indicated.
The management and work needed in dryland farming is both important and time consuming. One cannot afford to be lazy.
Laziness – which Ngina aptly refers to as sofa set farming – will certainly lead to failure. At AICAT, she says, students attended class in one day. The rest of the days learning took place at the farm.
“All of us were to report to the farm by 5.30am in the morning,” she says. “We would work on the farm for close to 10 hours. Everyone, including our supervisors, were expected to work at the farm.”
Having witnessed Israeli farming ethics, Ngina is convinced that the reason many farmers fail in Kenya is because they do not want to sweat for it.
Ask for professional help
According to Ngina, professionals – such as agronomists – are important especially in dryland farming.
“As an agronomist I understand how even slight weather changes may cost me the whole crop. It is important for a dryland farmer to consult an agronomist when situations arise where they do not know what to do,” she says.
Agronomists, she says, advise on proper spacing, state of soil health and fertility, water needs, irrigation, disease control and many other aspects of farming.
In Turkana, one of the lessons Ngina is teaching her students is biological pest control. Turkana is a resource scarce environment where such skills would come in handy.
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Grow the right crop
Not every crop will grow in dry areas even when provided with water, Ngina says. It is important that a farmer is properly advised – advice of which is available with county governments – on which crops to plant.
“Even when buying seeds, ask for seeds meant for the climate and soil where you are going to plant your crops,” she explains.
Unless it is impossible, Ngina advises, it would be good practice to do soil testing to establish soil health and soil fertility; which would then inform what crops can be grown in the area.