A woman carries harvested Brachiaria grass from a farm to a store in Kyakavi village, Kenya. Photo by: David Njagi / Devex

One out of 10 people in Kenya are facing crisis levels of food insecurity, and this number is likely to grow if the country experiences another below-average rainy season, as current forecasts suggest.

In a press statement, the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands Humanitarian Network warned that low rainfall from October to December has resulted in poor pasture and subpar crop harvests in many marginal agricultural areas and that low precipitation during the rainy season starting this month will worsen the situation.

However, farmers in eastern Kenya have found a way to beat the odds and avoid the challenges brought about by erratic rainfall by growing Brachiaria, a highly nutritious grass known for increasing milk production in livestock.

The grass was introduced to farmers by the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization, in collaboration with the International Livestock Research Institute and U.S. Agency for International Development, in 2014. The organizations wanted to improve dairy farming and help boost food security.

“Prolonged use of hybrid seeds has made farmers to depend too much on seed companies. When there is poor harvest due to failed rains, it means they have no harvest and nothing to sell.”

— John Masyula, a farmer in eastern Kenya

John Masyula, a farmer in eastern Kenya, said that before Brachiaria grass was introduced into his village of Kyakavi, farmers used to struggle with rain-fed agriculture.

At his well-kept farm in Mbooni Hills, recently harvested fields of Brachiaria grass are waiting to sprout afresh with the coming of the rainy season from March to June. But the rains have not yet arrived. Eight years ago, the rains would arrive on time, Masyula said.

In a region that depends on rain-fed agriculture, delayed rains typically mean poor yields for farmers. If Masyula were still growing staple crops such as maize and beans, he would have been a worried man.

"Families that grow food crops will not have enough food to eat if there is crop failure because of delayed rains. This is one of the main causes of food insecurity here," said Masyula, who has worked with the government and civil society.

The struggle of farmers relying on rain-fed agriculture is a three-way front. Apart from erratic rain driven by climate, hybrid seeds and fertilizer for growing maize are not affordable to many.

Such seeds have been programmed so that farmers cannot replant any harvested from a mother plant. If they do, the resulting crops will not yield anything, Masyula said.

"Prolonged use of hybrid seeds has made farmers to depend too much on seed companies. When there is poor harvest due to failed rains, it means they have no harvest and nothing to sell so that they can afford seeds for the next planting season," he said.

Raphael Mauyu inspects freshly baled Brachiaria grass at his farm in Mwithini village, Kenya. Photo by: David Njagi / Devex

Additionally, environmental degradation from climate change has depleted soil fertility over the years. As such, food crop farmers must buy fertilizers to enhance soil productivity. But few can afford the fertilizers, Masyula said.

Farmers of Brachiaria grass, though, are now generating 10 times more income than they were before. The additional funds have boosted food security for many families struggling with the pressures of climate change, poverty, and calamities such as locust and armyworm invasions, said Paul Ndambuki a smallholder farmer and agriculture change agent who helps other farmers improve productivity.

"It is a wonder grass," Ndambuki said. "Families do not have to worry about poor food crop harvests because they can buy food and more with the money.”

For instance, a 15-kilogram bale of ready-to-use Brachiaria grass, which takes about six weeks to mature, sells for 300 Kenyan shillings ($3). Farmers can harvest as many as 100 bales of grass from a 1-acre piece of land.

Meanwhile, a 90-kilogram bag of maize, taking about four months to mature, sells for about 3,800 shillings. Native maize varieties planted on 1 acre of land can generate about 10 bags of produce, Ndambuki said.

In addition, Brachiaria grass does not require any chemical application because, unlike maize, it is not attacked by pests or diseases, he said.

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In 2014, Raphael Mauyu transformed his 4-acre farm into fields of Brachiaria. Every year, his land generates about 1,000 grass bales, which he aims to scale up to 2,000.

Apart from stocking it for sale, Mauyu retains some of the fodder for his five dairy cows. When fed native grasses, one cow would produce about 4 liters of milk per day. But since switching to Brachiaria grass, milk production has increased to 10 liters daily, he said.

"Not only am I earning extra income from milk sales, [but] I also make sure my wife, my grandson, and I each have 1.5 liters of milk to drink every day. We are healthy and rarely fall sick," Mauyu said.

This focus area, supported by the U.N. Development Programme, explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality and vice versa. Visit the Focus on: People and the Planet page for more.

About the author

  • David Njagi

    David Njagi is Kenyan journalist with over 12 years’ experience in the field of journalism. He graduated from the Technical University of Kenya with a diploma in journalism and public relations. He has reported for local and international media outlets, such as the BBC Future Planet, Reuters AlertNet, allAfrica.com, Inter Press Service, Science and Development Network, Mongabay Reporting Network, and Women’s Media Center.