When Teresia Muni Gichobi began experiencing health problems, the last thing she suspected was that the chemicals she used on her farm were to blame.
Teresia, 60, who never struggled with her health, would experience shortness of breath so severe that she wound up in the hospital every few months.
“They would give me medicine, and advise me not to use chemicals,” she said.
After Teresia’s husband passed away five years ago, she took over farming responsibilities at the couple’s one-acre farm in Kirinyaga County, Kenya. To eliminate the increased prevalence of pests and diseases on the farm, Teresia began using chemical pesticides on nearly everything she grew — coffee, bananas, avocado, macadamia nuts, and kale — but they weren’t always effective.
While the agricultural sector in Kenya contributes 31 percent of the country’s GDP and employs 80 percent of the rural population, food security and agricultural productivity are constrained by socio-economic, technological, and natural factors. Environmental degradation, exacerbated by climate change, has led to unpredictable weather patterns, frequent droughts, violent floods, and increased pests and diseases.
Many smallholder farmers like Teresia struggle to cope with these climate effects. While they typically turn to chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, this is unsustainable as farmers must often increase their input use over time, leading to environmental destruction and health risks.
80% of Kenya’s rural population is employed in the agricultural sector.
In response, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and Industrial Promotion Services (IPS)/ Frigoken launched the Maendeleo Project. The two-year pilot project involves supporting over 2,000 Kenyan smallholder farmers in Kirinyaga County with improving their farming techniques and transitioning to regenerative agriculture to strengthen their climate resilience.
Through the Maendeleo Project, AKF has trained 15 Green Champions — local youth who are provided the skills to become consulants. These skills support the Green Champions beyond the life span of Maendeleo projects, creating long-term job opportunities and rebuilding technical support and agricultural extension services in the region for farmers. Green Champions work with farmers one-on-one and in groups through Farmer Field Schools to support their transition to regenerative farming.
A chance encounter with a Green Champion turned things around for Teresia.
Obed Mutenyo was walking along a road when he noticed a farm which had maize infected with fall armyworm. Obed knocked on the farmer’s house, introduced himself to Teresia, and explained that he could support her in improving her plants’ health, offering to return with a solution.
The following day, Obed returned to Teresia’s farm carrying a biospray — a homemade spray to fight crop pest infections. He began training Teresia on how she could create her own organic biospray, biofoliar, and biofungicide using materials she already had on her farm. Teresia was surprised to learn that she could use ingredients like cow dung, sugar, ash, plant leaves, and weeds growing on her farm to create alternatives to costly and harmful chemical sprays.
“I had already tried chemicals, but one week after Obed came [and used the biospray], I immediately saw changes,” Teresia shared.
She wasn’t the only one who noticed. One by one, Teresia’s neighbours began knocking on her door, asking what she did to improve the health of her maize as they faced similar challenges.
“I knew I couldn’t train them as well as Obed, so I said I would call him so he could meet them all after church,” Teresia shared.
Within days, Teresia had gathered her neighbours for an afternoon workshop with Obed on regenerative farming techniques to tackle climate-related effects.
“As a village, we can move forward together.”
Over the last year, these practices have dramatically improved their farming. Teresia, who said her plants are the healthiest they’ve ever been, is experiencing an increased harvest. While she produced 3,000 kilograms of coffee pods last year, Teresia projects she will produce 5,000 kilograms this year.
In addition, Teresia saved money by no longer purchasing chemical sprays, and she earns more, too, as her yield has increased. She has used the additional profit to contribute to her grandchildren’s education fees and has purchased chickens which are an additional income source.
One of the most significant impacts Teresia has experienced is improved health. She no longer struggles to breathe.
“I’m very happy with the progress I’ve seen … [and] that my neighbours are doing the same,” Teresia shared. “As a village, we can move forward together.”
Down the road from her home, Simon Gitari Nyaga, a coffee farmer, is also experiencing the positive impact of regenerative farming after years of struggling with climate-related farming issues.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” said Simon, 65, who has been a farmer his entire life.
Due to changing weather patterns, the mornings in Kirinyaga County can be chilly, Simon said. Coffee cherries, which are the fruit of coffee trees, are typically covered in dew, which contributes to fungal and bacterial infections. These infections turn the coffee cherries brown and black, rather than red, making them unsuitable for harvesting.
In 2019, Simon harvested nearly 9,000 kilograms of coffee cherries from his 1.5-acre farm, but in 2022, he harvested less than 5,000 kilograms, since much of the coffee cherries were infected.
Simon harvested nearly 9,000 kilograms of coffee in 2019, but only 5,000 kilograms in 2022, likely due to climate change.
The ongoing drought in East Africa has led to decreased rainfalls, water scarcity, and dry soil. The river near Simon’s home — his main water source — is drying up. Since water doesn’t flow as it used to, the community now rations water. While Simon has a water tank with a reserve, many of his neighbours do not.
“There is an effect of climate change, and it affects us so much,” Simon said. “Now, we need other strategies.”
He developed those strategies after meeting Dorothy Mwende, a Green Champion who passed by Simon’s farm and offered to support him as he transitioned to regenerative farming. Dorothy began teaching Simon how to use readily available materials to make his own natural pesticides and manure.
According to Simon, the manure he now makes is more nutritionally rich than what he used to purchase and helps his plants grow faster. Since he no longer buys manure and chemicals, Simon saves approximately 150,000 Kenyan shillings ($1,000 USD) annually.
According to Elizabeth Maina, the Regional Climate Resilience Advisor for the Aga Khan Foundation, the aim of the Maendeleo Project is “not just trying to get the farmers to stop using pesticides.”
Over time, regenerative farming will restore soil health and biodiversity will return, while farmers experience social and economic impacts, and retain their newly acquired knowledge and skills for a lifetime, she explained.
“If all farmers would change their ways and embrace these solutions, I feel we could reverse climate change.”
In addition to the Maendeleo Project in Kenya, AKF is supporting farmers transition from conventional agriculture to regenerative agriculture in countries including India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Syria.
“It [regenerative farming techniques] is a solution that after giving it to the farmer, you can’t take that away,” Elizabeth said.
Like Teresia, Simon began telling his friends about regenerative farming. He trained 10 of them to make biosprays and biofoliar. As a result, they also experience improved soil and crop health, better nutrition, greater yields, and increased financial savings.
“Using these nature-based solutions, I feel we can make a change,” Simon said. “If all farmers would change their ways and embrace these solutions, I feel we could reverse climate change.”
Learn more about building climate resilience through regenerative agriculture at The Learning Hub by the Aga Khan Foundation.
Words by Jacky Habib, photos by Natalia Jidovanu.
Jacky Habib is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist reporting about social justice, gender, and humanitarian issues. Her work has been published by NPR, Al Jazeera, VICE, Toronto Star, and others. Read more at www.jackyhabib.com.