Sustainability and Environment

The subject of this post is Nuru International’s approach to environmental sustainability in the Agriculture Program. Nuru International often discusses sustainability in terms of projects running on local finances (Financial Sustainability) and local leadership (Leadership Sustainability). While these values are fundamental to the way projects operate, there are other qualifiers of sustainability. Nuru International has a long-term commitment to partner with communities in developing countries to build and implement programs that are triple bottom line sustainable – socially, economically, and environmentally. The focus topic here is how sustainable agricultural solutions benefit the environment.

Nuru International’s Agriculture Program contributes to a productive and healthy environment:

1) Farm intensification prevents negative environmental consequences

Nuru International’s Agriculture Program partners with local communities to address the need of hunger in a sustainable way. In Kenya, the Agriculture Program seeks to eliminate episodic hunger by increasing crop yields. Besides increasing crop outputs, hunger could also theoretically be eliminated through food aid, population control, or bringing more land under production. Contrasting Nuru International’s approach to alternative approaches helps to highlight how the Agriculture Program benefits the environment.

Food aid can create dependency and is not locally self-sustaining. Nuru International’s Agriculture Program works with local farmers to intensify production on farm plots. When agriculturalists produce more of their own food, they avoid becoming dependent on unnecessary food handouts.

Population controls, although they would decrease hunger long-term, are not effective in the near-term, and can have disastrous environmental, economic and social consequences. In Kenya, hunger-driven rural-urban migration shifts the population from hard-pressed rural areas to over-populated urban areas. This has contributed to the growth of the world’s largest slums outside of Nairobi, with dire environmental and social consequences. When farmers have productive livelihoods in their traditional home place, they make sustainable use of local natural resources, contribute to the national economy under their own stead, and avoid becoming urban slum-dwellers.

Increasing the land under crop production would also be a possible way to address hunger. In Kenya, however, this would often mean invading natural lands, or coming into social conflict with other landholders. In Kuria, Kenya, agricultural land expansion threatens world famous natural reserves like the Masai Mara and can bring about inter-tribal conflict and even violence. On the contrary, when farmers can make sustainable use of their local natural resources, they avoid encroaching on areas of natural and cultural heritage. By avoiding deforestation, the Agriculture Program offsets potential greenhouse gas emissions, stabilizes climate, and helps halt desertification and land degradation.

The Agricultural Program ameliorates multiple negative consequences to the environment by offering farmers the choice to engage in their own sustainable agricultural livelihoods.

2) Implementation of appropriate farming technologies produces more crops in an environmentally friendly way

The Agriculture Program in Kenya works to increase crop yields of maize with input loans of hybrid maize seeds and conventional fertilizers. These are accompanied by technical training and extension to use the inputs in a responsible way that contributes to long-term environmental and soil health.

Nuru Kenya loans farmers hybrid maize seed which is bred and treated to be pest and disease resistant, high yielding, and to exhibit exemplary growth characteristics. Nuru Kenya’s Agriculture Program does not use genetically modified seed. Locally grown hybrid maize seed has the best characteristics to reliably produce maize that efficiently uses water and is well adapted to local soils and climate conditions. The grain produced by this maize is for human consumption and is consumed by Kenyans on a daily basis in the form of stiff dough (ugali).

The input loan also includes conventional fertilizers. These ensure that farmers can produce enough food to address their own family’s hunger. Farmers even produce enough maize to sell surplus yield for a profit and be better prepared for potential economic shocks (like purchasing medicine during a disease outbreak). Farmers apply a relatively small amount of conventional fertilizer, only what is minimally necessary for proper crop development.

When space is limited and a hungry population relies on subsistence agriculture, crop yields are, in part, a function of nutrient availability. Nuru Kenya promotes the use of composting, fallowing land, rotational cropping (for cover, forage or food), and applying animal manure to fields. Conventional fertilizers help address the shortcomings of organic fertilizers, as there are limits to strictly organic production in remote rural agrarian communities.

Producing organic nutrients takes a relatively long time and large area for a limited quantity. Decomposition of organic materials is slow, and ultimately is very dilute in key macronutrients – nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Where land is limited and hungry rural people need to produce crops to live, fallowing land and rotational cropping are not options that completely address nutrient needs. Manure also fails to provide a complete fertilizer solution because livestock are too few to produce the amount of manure that would be required. An added challenge to organic fertilizers is that they’re bulky and heavy. For calorie-deprived farmers, especially in an agricultural system powered by physical labor and not by machines, the labor-intensive application of organic fertilizer is difficult.

The Agriculture Program promotes organic production strategies – composting, rotational cropping, fallowing, and manure application, to name a few – as wholly complementary to the use of conventional fertilizers. Promoting all these concepts properly requires the right training and supervision.

Nuru International adopts a responsible and local-lead approach to training and supervising farmers. Staff are recruited locally, trained in technical topics, and then regularly train and advise farmers on how to:

  • Pick a plot – not on slopes or near sensitive riparian areas
  • Prepare the land well
  • Plant correctly
  • Apply fertilizer properly (Teaspoon dosages are hand delivered to each maize hole at the proper depths and spacing)


Proper land selection, preparation, planting and fertilizer application means that the fertilizer stays on the farm and is used by the plant, instead of running off.

3) Sustainable agricultural systems offer good choices to farmers

In Kuria, Kenya, most farmers have switched to maize farming for food and surplus with Nuru Kenya, from a past of farming tobacco for international corporations.  The switch from tobacco to maize has significantly contributed to the environment, soil and human health.

Tobacco is a non-food cash crop that has known toxic and carcinogenic properties, to both its growers (see green tobacco sickness) and its users. Tobacco farming causes soil erosion, requires large amounts of expensive chemicals to keep the leaves healthy, and needs exorbitant amounts of firewood to dry the tobacco.

When tobacco companies came to Kuria, Kenya, lush tropical forest covered large swaths of landscape. A few decades later, no natural forest remained in Kuria, having been burnt as fuel to dry tobacco. If farmers continue to produce tobacco in massive quantities, the resulting deforestation will further push into surrounding regions, negatively impacting forests and wildlife biodiversity.

Nuru Kenya’s Agriculture Program has gotten thousands of farmers to switch from tobacco to maize. In addition to being a crop that Kenyan farmers can use to feed their families and sell for profit, maize production also avoids the need to deforest more land. In fact, with the switch to intensified plots of maize and decreased pressure on fuel (wood) reserves, forests are now able to make a comeback in Kuria, Kenya.

Future Outlook of Sustainability in Agriculture

Nuru International’s Agriculture Program looks beyond today’s needs, beyond the here and now, to anticipate long-term solutions to ending hunger in the developing world. Today, Nuru International is helping to end hunger in Kenya. Over the next year, Nuru International will work to build lasting agricultural solutions to end hunger and poverty in Ethiopia. Over the next decade local people in these and other developing countries will implement solutions on their own, solutions that they originally built together with Nuru International. Their progeny, the next generation of rural farmers, will grow up with a more equitable balance of economic prosperity, social welfare, and environmental protection. Their work will bring about lasting, local-based solutions for generations to come.