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Feeding Kenya through organic farming

By Ejidiah Wangui (Xinhua)

08:13, July 25, 2013

NAIROBI, July 24 (Xinhua) -- On arrival to Mzee Benson Kinyua's farm in Rongai, Nakuru county in western Kenya, the atmosphere changes drastically. The sun's blazing heat is defused by cooling breezes from surrounding trees.

This surreal atmosphere is a far cry from what many Kenyan families living next to towns experience each day. Kinyua, says it is all part of a conscious plan. "I depend solely on the environment for food, and so I have to protect it."

His formula for a peaceful coexistence with nature, has taken hold in many communities worldwide. He practices organic farming, which relies on simple, locally available and low-cost environmentally friendly agricultural techniques.

It prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides -- whose mismanagement adversely affects the environment and human health.

Just like most Kenyan families, he is a small-scale farmer who produces food on limited land. Most of his agricultural yield is for home consumption and the surplus is sold to generate income for other needs such as school fees, health and groceries.

For Kinyua, organic farming was a common sense transition that has changed the life of his family. He began the practice in 2004, after undergoing training at the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF).

"Initially, while practicing conventional farming, I spent so much of the family finances on manufactured fertilizers and pesticides. But now, I don't need to buy anything. I fertilize my soils with compost manure made from what I primarily considered waste such as animal droppings, vegetable remains, dry leaves, ash and bones."

Once applied, it continually enriches the soil with key nutrients (potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous) necessary for plant growth. The manure also produces humus, which binds soil particles. "This enables my farm to withstand erosion from intense floods and winds that previously destroyed my crops," he says.

"You know, when I used to rely on conventional pesticides, I would have sleepless nights imagining the effects those chemicals would have on the family, and especially the kids, if used inappropriately."

He now uses biological methods. "The Mexican marigold weeds - mixed with pepper and other crop residues - are effective against whiteflies and spider mites that attack vegetables. Practices like rotating legumes with cereals, and using pyrethrin sprays from pyrethrum are also valuable," he says.

As for diseases, he says organic matter from compost manure increases soil micro-organisms that naturally suppress them, while mulching with dry grass also helps.

Such simple techniques have protected his family from the effects of pesticide poisoning, which causes cancer, birth defects and damage to the nervous system. The International Labor Organization links pesticides to more than 40,000 deaths yearly, affecting mostly children.

Since organic farming advocates for diversity, Kinyua says that his family is always assured of sufficient food and income. "I plant maize, beans, cassava, bananas, kales, tomatoes among other food crops all year round. I also rear animals such as cows, goats, rabbits, ducks and chicken," he says.

Kinyua says organic farmers need to be aware of available solutions for combating post harvest crop losses, which is often more than 50 percent for most of them.

"I use metal silos, which are affordable simple structures. They can store up to 25 sacks of maize for many years without using any pesticides or chemical preservatives. They also protect grains against humus and attacks from rodents, insects and birds," he adds.

"Organic farming has made me realize that nature provides us with so much. Farmers only need to have knowledge and skills for harnessing the gifts," says Kinyua.

Despite using such simple farming methods that conserve the environment, the farmer still reaps huge profits. "We now have outlets such as green groceries, restaurants and supermarkets that specifically sell organic products. And they are on high demand for their health and nutritional value," he says.

Apart from increasing soil fertility, organic farming controls pests and diseases, saves the environment from chemical deposits, makes ground water clean and safe and saves the farmer on money that would have been used on expensive farm inputs such as fertilizer.

The farmer also produces safe and nutritious foods that fetch better prices in the market.

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