Subsurface Water Retention Technology: Hope for Makueni Small Scale Farmers

To increase agricultural yields, the project, on top of the SWRT is also utilizing irrigation methods due to very low and unpredictable rainfall in the county

The recent climatic conditions have adversely affected food production in many regions of the country. Makueni is one of the counties witnessing low productivity due to these conditions.

The presence of sandy soils in lowland parts of Makueni also negatively affects the quantity of food produced and types of crops that can be grown. Sandy soils have poor water holding capacity, very low organic matter and do not retain nutrients in the root-zone when fertilized.

To curb this, researchers from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), JKUAT Enterprises Ltd (JKUATES), Alliance Bioversity-CIAT, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), and SWRT Solutions LLC installed soil water retention membranes on 18 farms in Mtito-Andei and Masongaleni wards in Kibwezi Sub-county, Makueni.

Funded by the Nordic Development Fund, the project aims to increase farm system resilience, crop production and carbon accumulation in sandy soils in the county.

“The project is based on demonstrating the utility of the Subsurface Water Retention Technology (SWRT) and involves the installation of subsurface impermeable water‐retaining membranes which disrupts large amounts of water and nutrients lost through natural deep percolation in sandy soils,” explains Dr. Shem Kuyah.

Prof. Alvin Smucker (in a cap) of SWRT Solutions LLC explains and demonstrates the installation of a subsurface impermeable water‐retaining membrane

According to the researchers, SWRT represents a long-term solution to increasing income and the capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change on highly permeable soils. To increase agricultural yields, the project, on top of the SWRT is also utilizing irrigation methods due to very low and unpredictable rainfall in the county.

“Combining SWRT membranes with irrigation diversifies production, and can permit a three-season farming cycle which allows the possibility of year-round production,” says Dr. Shem Kuyah, one of the researchers of the project.

The project which has been hell-bent on the scaling up of the technology in areas of sandy soils in Kenya is coming to an end in October 2022. The project team is working on a business case beyond the funding period, which allows the scaling up of the benefits the technology brings to farmers. In addition to seven trained local membrane installers, currently, the project team includes a sales representative.

“Considering the large area of sandy soils in Kenya, SWRT can be beneficial to farmers that eke out a living on these soils. Using the 18 farms as demonstration farms, we have been working with farmers of Makueni County to create awareness of the benefits of SWRT and we have witnessed an increase in the demand for the technology,” reports Jemimah Kanini, a sales representative of the business unit of SWRT, based at JKUATES.

Small-scale farmer, Ms. Gladys Musembi highlights the benefits she has witnessed with the SWRT to a fellow farmer

One of the beneficiaries of the technology, Ms. Gladys Musembi says she cannot stop spreading the gospel of the benefits of SWRT to her fellow small-scale farmers.

“I have always been a farmer at heart. Before I was introduced to the technology, my maize crops were always stunted. In a 6-acreage piece of land, my maize production was depressing to say the least. The plot with SWRT had significantly high yield. It is a marvel to see mature, non-stunted maize in the month of July in Kibwezi,” says an elated Ms. Musembi.

Acknowledging that SWRT installation is expensive and labor-intensive, especially for smallholder farmers with meager resources, Dr. Kuyah says the project team is in the process of experimenting on how high-value crops such as kales can increase profitability as compared to Maize.

The researchers look forward to seeing SWRT more accessible to smallholder farmers of Makueni County, and farming initiatives becoming more productive and profitable.

Ms. Musembi, who has a nursery of kales in readiness to transplant at the SWRT installed parcel of land, is confident that the growing of kales will be economically viable and will absorb the costs of the installation of the technology and water used for irrigation.

Ms. Florence Mutisya (right) describes the benefits of SWRT when the project team visited her farm

Her sentiments were echoed by her fellow small-scale farmer, Ms. Florence Mutisya saying, for them to get profits from this innovation there is need to grow high-value crops such as vegetables that take a shorter period to mature.

“Even though the cost of installing SWRT is high, if we join hands as small farmers’ groups we will be able to afford the installation and reap the benefits of the technology,” said Ms. Mutisya.

Her sentiments are supported by the number of farmers who have flocked her farm for demonstrations and learned how to implement the technology.

As the three-year project culminates, the project has been steadfast in attracting the interest of farmers, financial institutions and entrepreneurs and raising their awareness on the installation and short-term return on investments and long-term benefits of SWRT.

The project, deemed to improve the agricultural index of Makueni County, is spearheaded by Dr. Shem Kuyah (JKUAT), Dr. Winifred Karugu (JKUATES), Dr. Sylvia Nyawira and Dr. Stanley Karanja (The Alliance Bioversity-CIAT), Prof. Alvin Smucker (SWRT SOLUTIONS LLC.) and Dr. Libère Nkurunziza (SLU).

Subsurface Water Retention Technology; Hope for Makueni Small Scale Farmers

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