MOMBASA-TANA RIVER, 6 October 2011 (IRIN) - Coastal areas in Kenya provide a vivid illustration of the factors that thwart agricultural potential across much of Africa: small plot sizes, minimal irrigation and endemic poverty, which precludes investment, and in turn, greater productivity.
"The locals open up very small pieces of land for farming," Elias Gitonga Kithaura, the Tana Delta District Commissioner, told IRIN.
What was needed, he said, was role models to buck this trend by farming plots of about 50 hectares.
"But are there people who are ready to exploit the resources here to grow rich?"
The local weather is suitable for large-scale production of high-value crops, such as fruit and vegetables.
Training in investment possibilities is another missing key ingredient, Stephen Muanga, the Bamba District Officer, told IRIN. Bamba is about 55km from the coastal town of Kilifi.
"The residents find it cheaper to lease out the land for pasture than to work on it, for example," said Muanga.
Poverty contributes to this, with the high cost of farming implements a deterrent. It costs about KSh2,000 [US$20] to plough 0.4ha of land.
Illiteracy is also a problem, he said, adding that in some areas almost 65 percent of residents could not read or write.
"You can get a 20-year-old who has never gone to school and has never been to Kilifi Town," he said. "There is a lack of exposure."
But even where locals engage in farming, it is mainly for subsistence. A lack of water pumps among riverine farmers for example, adversely affects the land under food production.
"In our village [Duwayo, Tana River], only one person has a water pump, which he hires out for KSh300 [$3] per day," said Isaac Dima, a resident.
"Then there is petrol to buy at KSh160 a litre [$1.60]. You have to buy all these things yourself."
Dima said local farmers were organizing into groups to secure loan facilities.
"Other than relying on food aid, it would be better if we bought the water pumps to sustain ourselves through irrigation agriculture and the sale of extra produce."
At least 45 percent of the larger Tana River population needs food aid, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
This is despite the region having Kenya's longest permanent river, the Tana, running through it.
"We have a plan to develop irrigation schemes from the dams [upstream] after their completion," said Mandara Badirido, a professor at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
Plans are under way to construct dams in Kilifi and Tana River.
"Bura and Hola irrigation schemes [in Tana River], for example, have proved that the region has the potential of producing a substantial amount of food crops that can even feed the entire nation, especially if the River Tana is utilized well," he said.
But in the past, government irrigation schemes failed due to mismanagement and are now being revamped.
In a region where high poverty levels mean farmers are unable to buy fertilizers to obtain good crop yields, experts are recommending the adoption of low input crops such as cassava to enhance food production and thereby food security.
"The locals tend to believe that Ugali [maize flour cake] should be the staple food, yet we can cultivate short-term crops such as cassava and millet that are [more] nutritious," Josephat Mwatela, the principal of Mombasa Polytechnic University College, told IRIN.
This over-reliance on maize affects local food security as the region is a net importer of the cereal.
To help address this, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) recommends cassava production as well as the milling of cassava flour to avoid over-dependence on maize flour.
"Cassava can be used to substitute up to 50 percent maize flour in ugali without compromising on colour, taste, aroma and texture," it says.
Poor farming techniques also contribute to the loss of fertile top soils, with further impacts on food security.
For example, suspended sediments from the land brought to the sea through river discharge result in increased water turbidity, affecting fish stocks. Fish are an important food source in parts of the region.Source: The Integrated Regional Information Networks (http://www.irinnews.org )