Sustainable Intensification and Nuru Kenya’s Agriculture Program

Sustainable intensification offers a practical approach to producing more food with less environmental impact. A recent review of the subject, Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture, spurred a wave of associated posts about the topic. In this blog, I reflect on this report from the Montpellier Panel in light of Nuru Kenya’s Agriculture Program in Kuria West, Kenya.

The challenge for agriculture in Africa is producing more food with limited resources.

Demand for food is high and increasing. Sub-saharan Africa has a rapidly expanding population, currently at about 875 million people and expected to almost double by 2050. Meanwhile, some 234 million people, or 27% of the population in Sub-saharan Africa, are currently classed as chronically undernourished. Projected food needs and demands of a growing population make for an increasingly precarious situation.

On the supply side, current production systems are underperforming and resources are highly limited. In Africa today, systems of agricultural production aren’t meeting current food needs. Future projections of agriculture output predict that, based on current trends, Africa-based production would meet only 13% of the continent’s food needs in 2050. Irrigation of cultivated land is at only 4%.  An estimated 75% of arable lands have degraded or highly degraded soils.

Production technologies are outmoded, technological adoption rates are low, and soil resource loss is high. Moreover, land and water resources are limited. Putting more land into agricultural production often means encroaching on natural forests or marginal farmlands. Intensifying irrigation can come at odds with water supplies for domestic, ranching or industrial purposes.

The response to meeting increasing demand and limited supply is sustainable intensification – or producing more output (production, income & nutrition) with less inputs (direct inputs of labor, water, fertilizer & biodiversity, and indirect inputs of financial capital, knowledge, infrastructure, technology & markets). The sustainability part of intensification introduces the ideas of efficiency, contributions to the environment, ecosystem services and building resilience.

Nuru Kenya’s Agriculture Program works on a sustainable intensification model.

Nuru Kenya farmers produce more than twice as much (+123%) maize compared to traditional farming systems. Their income is 135% higher from the maize income stream alone. They have enough maize to eat as their staple food all year and surplus to sell. Nuru Kenya farmers are more resilient to shocks, as they work to save their earnings in group savings and loans accounts.

Nuru Kenya farmers make prudent and efficient use of direct inputs to greatly increase crop yields. They use the same amount of land and water, as plot size is limited and agriculture is rain-fed. The use of labor, fertilizer, and quality hybrid seed significantly contributes to yield increases. Farmers reap large harvests from their fields, but they also invest in building up their farms by preventing soil erosion and through proper agronomic practices. This mitigates damage to, and actually improves, the environment.

Advances by Nuru Kenya farmers are made possible by the responsible adoption of technology. For example, farmers micro-dose conventional fertilizer, hand-delivering a small bottle-capful to each seed and plant. This practice makes for incredibly efficient use of fertilizers, guarantees minimal runoff and mitigates impact on soils. Another example of technological innovation is the use of hybrid certified seed. Developed in Kenya by government authorities, hybrid maize seed is carefully and laboriously bred to deliver high-yielding, disease-resistant, and robustly-growing plants to farmers.

Beyond farming practices, crop husbandry, and technology, Nuru Kenya also relies on socio-economic intensification. Achieving long-term impact means creating an enabling environment for success. This environment is predicated on innovative and sustainable institutions and organizations in farms, communities, and across regions and countries.

Nuru Kenya’s Agriculture Program creates an enabling environment by providing access to tools and knowledge, building social and human capital, and facilitating market access.

  • Tools & Knowledge: Nuru Kenya’s Agriculture Program provides agriculture inputs (a production package of fertilizer and seed) on loan to farmers, paired with timely trainings throughout the season.
  • Social & Human Capital: Field staff organizes farmers into small groups and trains up volunteer leaders at the grassroots level to help train farmers and produce crops.
  • Market Access: During harvest time, Nuru Kenya facilitates market access by providing for stationary and mobile pick up points and offering competitive, fair prices.
  • Sustainability: Nuru Kenya also layers on its Leadership Program and Social Enterprises which build up local staff to run the organization and generate revenues for financial sustainability of the organization, respectively.

 

Perhaps the most compelling piece of the sustainable intensification paradigm is that it presents a framework that can scale up to regional and global hunger needs of rapidly growing populations. Nuru International’s Agriculture Program adopts the sustainable intensification approach to confront hunger by progressively scaling to meet the needs of farmers, communities, districts, and, eventually, countries and regions. This season for 5,500 farmers in Kuria West District, Nuru Kenya’s adoption of sustainable intensification is providing the framework to live free of hunger.

About Matt Lineal

Chief Program Officer — Matt received his BA in Government and Spanish from Lawrence University and a MS in Forest Sciences from Colorado State University, and began his international service career in rural Honduras, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer and later with The Nature Conservancy. Over several years punctuated by severe challenges for Hondurans, his experiences were eye opening as to how people navigate the complexities of rural life. Matt was drawn to Nuru International in 2011 with the resolve to take on tough challenges and has been humbled and amazed to be part of the transformational impact of local leaders. As Nuru’s Chief Program Officer, Matt continues to promote the agency of rural communities as the foundation of meaningful positive change.

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