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Maasai Pastoralists Make Crops Thrive Despite Drought in Kenya

Crops thrive despite drought

Throughout their history, the Maasai have relied solely on herding for survival, viewing their livestock as both a sign and source of wealth. however, increasingly frequent and severe drought in the area they occupy across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania and the lack of land has meant devastating losses in cattle herds, leading the government to initiate programmes to introduce the maasai to a new survival strategy – crop production. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture is working to introduce small-scale drip irrigation technologies to the Maasai who have no tradition of crop production but recognize that their survival depends on being able to make the most efficient use possible of their scarce water resources.

For the Maasai, livestock are more than their primary source of income. They are a cultural necessity. When Maasai greet each other, they don’t ask about the other person’s family. They ask about their animals. A Maasai prayer translates as “May the creator gives us cattle and children.”

In the Maasai culture, the men herd the animals. When there is a drought, they must take their herds to greater and greater distances searching for water and pasture, leaving women and children behind. Their pastoralist culture has never included growing crops because they have always relied on meat, milk and blood from cattle for protein and calories. However, as the drought scenario has worsened across Kenya and Tanzania, a huge number of animals have died, herds are smaller than ever, and the Maasai have had to rely on purchasing rice, maize and potatoes produced in other areas.

At the request of the Green Belt Movement, an NGO working in the area, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture has coordinated with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) to introduce the Maasai to cropping, as a way to help them grow their own food and improve their nutrition. As they have no tradition of growing crops, the programme started by teaching horticulture techniques, introducing crops such as kale as well as fruit trees that provide nutrition but also have market value.

However, success requires more than learning how to farm. Due to the difficult agricultural conditions in the area, the Joint Division also works with KARI to identify simple but sophisticated nuclear techniques that will enable the Maasai to make the most efficient use possible of their scarce water resources in order to have optimum production.

While it might seem far-fetched to imagine Maasai pastoralists employing nuclear techniques to start agriculture in the arid landscape of East Africa, the Joint Division has supported KARI in developing low-cost, small-scale irrigation technologies based on the use of neutron probes and isotope tracers that are specifically designed to meet the needs of the Maasai. The Joint Division provides fellowship training to ensure KARI scientists are able to use the techniques and then KARI passes the technology on to the Maasai.

In this case, the techniques focus on drip irrigation, which increases water use efficiency. This calls for applying water directly to the plant roots through a network of pipes and tubes, thus reducing water losses through evaporation or due to water draining away below the plant’s root. KARI scientists assist the farmers, using a soil moisture neutron probe to measure the moisture levels. The neutron probe is not a new technology. In fact, it was developed in the 1950s, but the Joint Division determined that it remains the best technology for use by the Maasai.

Going a step further, this irrigation system also can be used to target use of nitrogen fertilizers. Nitrogen is critical for agriculture, but it is an expensive commodity and can be difficult to find in rural areas. It also can cause severe environmental problems if it is not used correctly. If too much is spread on the soil, the extra that is not taken up by the plant is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas emission making it a climate hazard. If too much goes into the soil, nitrogen leaching can occur, which means that the excess drains through the soil and, if it reaches the level of the ground water, it can make the water unsuitable for human consumption. More importantly, it can amount to a substantial financial loss for the poor farmers.

By delivering nitrogen fertilizer through the same pipes as the irrigation water, the fertilizer also goes directly to the area of the plant root where it is needed. Known as “fertigation”, it relies on stable isotope tracers to test how well the nitrogen is taken up by the plants. With this information, the farmers know exactly how much fertilizer and water is needed and can adjust the amount accordingly. This not only saves the water resources, it also saves on the cost of unnecessary fertilizer as well as the energy and time needed to produce and spread the fertilizer.

For traditional pastoralists such as the Maasai, there is no question that times have changed. Population pressure has meant more need for agricultural land, but at the same time, changes in land tenure now allow personal rather than tribal ownership and new owners have fenced traditionally communal lands. That, combined with the enormous loss of animals due to drought, has led many Maasai to appreciate the importance of crop production in bridging food shortages and improving family nutrition. In addition, the vegetable farming has encouraged men to stay closer to the family so they can help with the crops. Thanks to the success in the pilot area, other Maasai communities have begun vegetable farming, knowing they have more potential for success, thanks to the application of nuclear techniques.  

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Last update: 07 Mar 2018

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