A village in Kangundo, Machakos County, is thriving because of a most unlikely form of farming – growing grass. Muisuni Village, which is only 70 kilometres away from Nairobi, had until 2016, struggled with a hostile climate.
The residents of this small town would attempt to farm but barely got much as the area had long dry spells, and there was lack of information on viable farming practices. Today, delighted local farmers tell a different story.
Their ventures are thriving, with some decent income in their pockets. Mrs Pasqualine Mulusya, a 66-year-old mother of five and a dairy farmer from Kamutonga Village, is herself a story of resilience and determination. Her thirst for agribusiness began in 2012, when she and her husband dug a borehole on their farm.
Upon urging by people who promised to buy all their produce, the couple set up a greenhouse for growing tomatoes and planted strawberries on three acres.
“In 2013, we had 43,000 strawberry plants on three acres of land under drip irrigation and tomatoes on our one-acre greenhouse,” she recalls.
However, the people who had promised to buy the produce were missing in action when the crop matured.It was a double calamity when a pest, Tuta absoluta (tomato leaf miner), invaded their tomato crop, wiping out most of it.
“It was devastating. We did not make any money,” says Mr Mulusya. They would bounce back into agribusiness with a gift of two zebu calves from a friend and the discovery in 2017 of a Village Knowledge Centre that had been set up within the CDF building at Kangundo shopping centre. “I heard about the knowledge centre and visited them to see what was happening,” says
Mrs Mulusya. At the centre, the middle-aged woman learnt about Brachiaria grass and got two 40gm packets of the Piata and MG-4 brachiaria varieties, which she planted.
“After maturity, we fed the grass to our animals and noticed increased milk production. We then decided to buy more animals,” she adds. Today, she has four acres under the three varieties.
“I knew very little about Brachiaria, but thanks to the knowledge centre, today, I am a model farmer of sorts. Last season, we sold our grass at between Ksh300 and Ksh380 per bale. We are also selling Brachiaria root splits at Ksh1,500 per 50kg bag,” she says.
In addition, the impact on milk productivity from their 11 dairy cows has been tremendous. Mt Zion Farm now has 40 dairy cows.
“Since we started giving our cows Brachiaria grass, their milk productivity and health have improved. We get 25 litres of milk from the highest producing animal, up from 20 litres,” she adds.
The knowledge centre is an ICT platform-based system that links farmers through smartphones and social media, as a conduit for faster and effective information, and knowledge exchange among rural communities.
VKCs are critical in bridging the knowledge gaps and improving gender balance in agricultural extension. Small-scale farmers and residents can access current information on livestock feeds and new crop varieties. Ms Mirriam Makato, the VKC manager, told Smart Farmer magazine how the centre has helped dairy farmers to improve milk production and boost their incomes. Through the centre, farmers now access accurate information on bracharia farming.
“We aim to empower farmers to manage their production well,” says Ms Makato.
Another farmer, 60-year-old Rosemary Mutuku, has trekked several kilometers to come and learn about growing Brachiaria grass and to collect some seeds. She has been growing and selling Napier grass for the better part of her farming venture, but changing weather patterns have forced her to look for an alternative grass that is climate-smart. “I have been growing Napier grass for sale but climate change has hit me hard. I heard people talking about Brachiaria grass when I visited the Kangundo Ward CDF offices. I want to try it and that is why I came to learn more at the centre,” she explains.
New Information source
The mother of four listens attentively as she is taken through the different types of Brachiaria grass, how to plant and maintain the ‘wonder grass’ to maturity. Armed with knowledge from the centre and two packets of Brachiaria seeds, Mrs Mutuku walks out a relieved farmer. Just like Mrs Mutuku, the centre has generated interest among farmers, extension agents, and other stakeholders in the area.
“Previously, we got information from the radio or television – for those who could afford – or waited for agricultural extension officers, who hardly visited,” says Mrs Mutuku.
The knowledge centre at Kangundo is part of the InnovAfrica (Innovations in Technology, Institutional and Extension Approaches towards Sustainable Agriculture and Enhanced Food, and Nutrition Security in Africa) project. The project is funded by the European Union and implemented by a consortium of 16 partners. Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organisation (KALRO), is up-scaling and testing Brachiaria grass in Kangundo Sub-County and also in Kirinyaga County. It is aimed at integrating sustainable agriculture intensification systems, innovative institutional approaches with novel extension and advisory services, to strengthen the adaptive capacity of sub-Saharan Africa’s farmers. It is also meant to improve productivity, profitability and nutritional benefits of smallholder farmers while reducing environmental impacts.
Dr Donald Njarui, the lead scientist of InnovAfrica project in Kalro, is based at Katumani and visits the farmers implementing the project to ensure that all is well. He and his colleagues address any concerns and answer any questions on the grass.
Dr Njarui, fondly referred to as ‘Mr Brachiaria’ by farmers, notes that with a scheduled farmer follow-up programme, the VKC has connected farmers to an active WhatsApp group where they exchange information and ideas on Brachiaria growing.
The future plan
“We want to complement the existing extension services through the VKC by providing the community with knowledge on various dimensions of agriculture and livestock, including inputs, marketing and rural development. The project introduced this innovation in Africa after learning about VKCs in India,” said Dr Njarui.
Brachiaria grass is a tropical forage that produces a high amount of palatable and nutritious biomass for livestock. Although it is native to eastern and central Africa, its use as livestock feed is limited in Kenya.
The lead scientist explains that the project is committed to rapidly upscaling the four Brachiaria varieties – Xaraes, Piata, MG-4, and Basilisk to thousands of smallholder dairy farmers to alleviate livestock feed shortages. Dr Njarui advises farmers to always grow Brachiaria cultivars favourable to specific regions to enable them to reap the benefits.
“Brachiaria grass is ‘climate smart’. It is high yielding, contains high crude protein, and produces a lot of root biomass that helps to sequester carbon in the soil,” he adds.
With information from the centre, farmers can now easily tell the symptoms of certain diseases on Brachiaria and seek appropriate medication.