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HomeFood and Farming ScienceSustainable food, land and livelihoods: Promising farming techniques in Kenya

Sustainable food, land and livelihoods: Promising farming techniques in Kenya

A sustainable food system must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive and environmentally sound.

By the time food gets on your plate, it has gone through an entire food system whose workings are not immediately apparent to the ordinary person. A food system is made up of all the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population including growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items.

Most conventional food systems prioritise profits before anything else. Quantifying the environmental and social cost of financial gains is overlooked. Conventional agriculture typically has high external inputs, such as pesticides and artificial fertilisers, which are intended to maximise efficiency and increase production. It often means that sound ecological principles are ignored or overridden.

As a consequence, conventional food systems are susceptible to breaking down, in the form of regular pest outbreaks. This was the case with the recent outbreak of fall armyworm in Kenya, in which monoculture and pesticide resistance made vast maize plantations vulnerable to attack by the fall armyworm. Conventional food systems are also often the cause of environmental degradation problems such as salinisation, soil erosion, pollution of water systems, decrease in soil health and biodiversity.

In fact, conventional food systems have been shown to fail to eradicate malnutrition, obesity, hunger and poverty particularly of rural populations in developing countries partly due to poor food distribution and poor food quality. In Kenya, approximately 25% of the population i.e. more than 10 million people still experience chronic food insecurity (FAO, 2017). Moreover, nutrition security is challenged by foodborne pathogens, antibiotic resistance, pesticide and chemical contamination as well as diet-related chronic diseases (Wallinga et al., 2015).

To address these negative effects, it is now widely recognised that food production systems and the food chain, in general, must become fully sustainable (De Schutter, 2014). Food sustainability and food security are inextricably linked. A diverse diet is a healthy diet, and a sustainable diet is one that is based on a range of food items, which themselves are produced in a manner that is in harmony with nature.

Conventional methods are reaching their limit, and the survival and health of the wider ecosystem now depends on the adoption of sustainable food systems. The only way to achieve environmentally sound systems is to start treating farmland as complex webs of ecological interactions.

Defining sustainable food systems

Food sustainability is defined as long-term food security that ensures environmental, economic, and social sustainability of food systems at every stage (Berry et al., 2015). This means that everything from agricultural production, processing, retailing and consumption must be considered holistically, in a way that renders it capable of maintaining its productivity for future generations under changing conditions, such as climate change. A sustainable food system must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound (Ikerd, 1990).

Growing diverse crops, increasing biodiversity, ensuring soil health and farming with nature are some of the strategies that can improve food resilience, especially among small-scale farmers. However, the best yields can only be obtained locally if farmers have access to seeds, water, nutrients, pest management solutions, soils, biodiversity and knowledge.

More and more people are not only concerned about food sustainability but also about food safety. Some of the threats to food safety are foodborne pathogens, antibiotic resistance, fungal toxins due to improper storage of crops, pesticide and chemical contamination (Macharia et al., 2009). These issues are likely to become more salient in light of climate change, which is expected to lead to the emergence of new pathogens, induce an increase in the use of pesticides and pharmaceuticals, and perhaps even bring on a spike in antibiotic and pesticide resistance.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a sustainable way of managing these threats from pests and pathogens. There are several ways of controlling pests in a sustainable way. Cultural control methods include ensuring one is selecting crop varieties best for local growing conditions, instead of putting pressure on the ecosystem by growing crops that are not well suited for a particular environment.

Biological methods include the use of biopesticides like a wood ash, chilli pepper or garlic spray solution on plants, unleashing live predators such as ladybugs to feed on aphids, mites and caterpillars, or growing herbs like sage, rosemary, peppermint and thyme that have been shown to deter a variety of insect pests in vegetable gardens.

Mechanical strategies include scouting, traps and physically removing pests from the plants, which suppresses pest populations below a critical level and prevents the proliferation of pests.

The aim of these methods is to reduce the use of pesticides and to minimise the risk towards human health (promoting food safety) and environmental health (promoting food sustainability). As the last option and only at specific times in a pest’s life cycle, pesticide use is acceptable.

Integrated pest management strategies are already well known in Kenya and their use is widespread. Many farms, especially the ones exporting produce to other countries, are growing their crops under IPM. Various companies specialise in the promotion of IPM strategies, such as Real IPM and Dudutech. Additionally, the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) in Kenya is currently developing a curriculum on IPM training for Kenyan farmers.

Along with IPM, organic farming is another method that moves one step further towards sustainable food systems harmonious with the environment. It is a method of crop and livestock production that involves much more than choosing not to use pesticides, fertilisers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and growth hormones. Organic production is a holistic system designed to optimise the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock and people.

Organic farming focuses on improving soil health by using organic fertiliser only, such as compost, manure and worm extracts. It also improves soil health by implementing intercropping and crop rotation for better nutrient and pest management, and by applying biological pest control. The reduced industrial inputs of organic agriculture can also lead to a greater reliance on local knowledge, creating a stronger knowledge community amongst farmers.

One obstacle to the adoption of organic farming that farmers in Kenya complain about is the lack of market access. However, many farmers are starting to benefit from market delivery platforms. For instance, Mlango Farm or organic produce distributors like Kalimoni Greens, deliver fresh organic produce daily to households in Nairobi. There are also locally-organised farmers markets. In Nairobi, these include the weekly Organic Farmers Market (OFM) at KSPCA along Langata Road and at Two Rivers Mall.

Still, the benefits of organic farming should not only be driven by market access but also the contribution this way of farming makes to food security, through improved soil health, diverse nutrition, less chemical residues and lower input costs. Although there are collaborations amongst organic farmers networks in Africa to strengthen organic farming on the continent, such as through the Ecological Organic Agriculture Initiative, there is still a lack of policy support, political will and incentives for farmers across Kenya to convert en masse to organic food production.

Another leading voice in the food system transition discourse has been the agroecology movement – the application of the science of ecology to agriculture (Wezel et al., 2009), by understanding how nature works and mimicking natural systems (Altieri, 2002). Agroecology has emerged as the discipline that provides the basic ecological principles for how to study, design and manage agro-ecosystems that are productive and natural resource conserving, and that are also culturally sensitive, socially just and economically viable (Altieri, 2002).

Agroecology is not associated with a particular type of farming such as organic farming, although they share some of the same principles. Many organic foods in European grocery stores are not grown following agroecological principles but are from industrially-run operations that are not actually integrated with the broader natural and human ecosystem, but instead, are isolated from it. In agroecological strategies, farms are diversified, chemical input is replaced with IPM or organic methods, biodiversity is optimised, diverse knowledge systems are integrated and social justice concerns are involved (Gliessman, 2016). The systems are locally adapted and culturally sensitive, and the overall health of the agro-ecosystem matters as much as crop yield.

Along with agroecology, there’s also permaculture. While agroecology is a science, permaculture is rather a philosophy of design – an applied version of agroecology and a whole way of living (Conrad, 2014).

Permaculture is a design system created by Holmgren and Mollison (Holmgren, 2002; Mollison, 1997) that simulates or utilises the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. The term “permaculture” was originally referred to as “permanent agriculture”, but has expanded to embrace the idea of “permanent culture” in recognition that the social dimension is essential to truly sustainable living systems. Permaculture draws from several disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, sustainable development, sustainable building and applied ecology. In the permaculture approach, enterprises, farm animals and ecological restoration are all integrated, so they work together better than they would work apart.

There are various organisations working on permaculture designs in Kenya, including Barefoot Solutions, the Permaculture Research Institute and Hamana Solutions. A successful example of permaculture in practice is the organic coffee production by a community-based organisation in Rongo, Migori County, in partnership with the Permaculture Research Institute-Kenya.

In Rongo, heavily degraded land due to excessive use of commercial fertilisers and agro-chemicals resulted in low coffee yields of 0.5 kg per tree per harvest season, as opposed to a potential maximum yield of 4 kg. After just two years of permaculture practice in this region, farmers have seen soils come back to life and coffee trees are now yielding an average of 2.4 kg per tree. This is attributed to soil restoration especially by the use of compost, and improved farming practices such as mulching, cover cropping and intercropping with nitrogen fixers like caliandra, lucern and pigeon peas (HaLevi et al., 2018). Farmers and their local knowledge were involved at every step of the process.

Achieving sustainable food systems

One of the challenges to the spread of sustainable farming systems across East Africa is that it is more knowledge-intensive than other forms of agriculture and that it requires greater skills from farmers. However, learning successfully about sustainable farming systems is about experiential learning. In particular, agroecology and permaculture embrace and recognise the contribution of indigenous communities, and the vital role of traditional ecological knowledge in creating and sustaining healthy ecosystems (Conrad, 2014). This traditional knowledge is very much abundant in Kenya and needs to be further embraced and shared amongst communities.

Another challenge in poor communities is the lack of secure land. Insecure property rights and immediate critical situations, such as financial stresses, may prevent smallholders from managing the land more productively, which requires medium to long-term investments to restore soil health.

The ecological and economic potential of agroecological and local food systems is nevertheless very high, and many farmers are already implementing these systems and seeing the benefits. Scaling them up needs to be closely linked with support at the different levels of government and, more generally, to the political subsystem they are embedded within.


Silke Bollmohr is a permaculturist, an environmental consultant and the Director of Hamana Solution and Eco-trac Consulting. She focuses on the impact of conventional farming systems (in particular pesticide use) and the promotion and implementation of sustainable farming systems in Kenya and other African countries. Over the past 20 years, she has worked with farmers, governments, civil society and the private sector in South Africa, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia and Germany to create a healthier agricultural environment.

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