All his life, Idriss Yakub has followed cattle and goats across North Eastern Province in search of grass and water. However, nowadays, as he surveys his rice farm on the banks of the River Tana in Jara Jara village, he beams with pride and hope.
His farm is a little less than an acre, but it illustrates new thinking among residents used to living on relief shipments. They have always shunned farming and reared cattle, camels and goats. However, long spells of drought and the current food emergency have sent them looking for alternatives of survival.
“From what I get after selling the rice, I’m able to feed my two children and pay fees,” says Yakub. He feeds his cattle waste from the farm. He says he doesn’t get a lot, but when other people are crying about food, he is a bit comfortable, he says.
The Government has also established a 100-acre rice farm in the village, which is in the new Balambala District. Maintained by the National Youth Service personnel, the farm shows the area has agricultural potential. There are plans to expand the farm to 200 acres.
The Tana snakes its way through the arid province for more than 400km, and government officials say it presents a huge potential for agriculture through irrigation. However, due to a history of neglect since independence, this potential remains untapped. Farther away in Mandera, other farmers are also on the footsteps of Yakub and have established fertile farms along River Dawa, which is 300km long and forms Kenya’s border with Ethiopia. Their fresh farm products such as mangoes and green maize are sold as far away as Samburu and Moyale.
“We can feed ourselves if we tap the waters and train farmers in new farming methods,” says Mohammed Issack Duale, executive director of Racida, a charitable organisation. The charity is assisting farmers by digging channels for irrigation along the river, and educating them on modern farming technologies. Duale says if the river waters are harnessed for farming, many people in the province would no longer have to import food. Area PC James ole Serian says residents need not rely on relief food as their land is fertile and productive.
“We’ve been given relief food for almost 100 years,” says Serian, “that’s embarrassing. Every year, we see more people wanting aid.” Due to the drought that has devastated the Horn of Africa, the worst in 60 years according to the United Nations, more than one million people are surviving on relief shipments in the province.
No reliable rain
There has been no reliable rainfall in the past four years, which has rendered families destitute. Most people are nomads, but their cattle have been wiped out by the drought. The region is the poorest in the country and lacks road or telephone networks. Transporting aid is a nightmarish experience through dust, sweltering heat and narrow tracks that serve for roads.
The area has also been plagued by insecurity caused by inter-clan fighting, banditry attacks and incursions by militants from the war-ravaged eastern neighbour, Somalia. This has kept investors away, and has aided in portraying the region as a barren, dangerous wasteland. Serian says through irrigation on the banks of the two rivers, the province could not only feed itself, but other parts of Kenya. The land is virgin and fertile, he says, and could support tens of thousands of acres under agriculture.
“What we need to do is expand what we are doing in places like Jara Jara. All we need is technology and money,” adds Serian. He said the Government has allocated Sh1 billion to expand and start projects in Mandera, Garissa and Habaswen, where an underground river runs through.
“If you want a solution in NEP, we should just ban the distribution of relief and seek alternatives. If you do something for 100 years and there’s no solution, you must abandon it and look for another solution,” says Serian. The area is much quieter now, with few incidents of bloodshed, he says. Although there are now plans to tarmac the road between Garissa and Modogashe, the road network is still pathetic. Abdi Mohammed, a farmer in Raya near Garissa, says transporting produce is a nightmare.
“If it rains, you can’t move an inch,” he says, “Sometimes, it floods and you have to wait until the water levels go down.” Farming, however, does not mean residents need to completely forget their livestock. There has been talk of establishing abattoirs in the area, but this has not been implemented.
Residents also need to change their attitude toward agriculture. Due to traditional attachment to livestock, even flourishing farmers are regarded as poor and worth no respect. “Among the Somali, no one respects you if you have no livestock. If you die, they’ll just abandon you to rot away,” says Adan Keynan, the Jara Jara chief. He adds: “We believe if you don’t eat meat for 40 days, your brain becomes useless. But now, people have a big urge to farm because they have seen how the farmers have benefited.”