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Geopolitics

Where Corn Won't Grow: As Drought Deepens, Kenyans Turn To Manioc For Survival

Faced with a severe drought, farmers in the region decided to begin planting manioc and sorghum, two crops that need less water than traditional corn.

A manioc plant in bloom
A manioc plant in bloom
Sébastien Hervieu

KEE - "Look, there is nothing. Just look!" Norman Ngunda rips out a corn crop, only a few centimeters tall. The stem is yellow, dry and thin. Next to that, a more than two-meter tall manioc plant, with lush green leaves.

This isn't the first time farmers living in Kee, a small Kenyan village located a few hundred kilometers south-east of the capital Nairobi, have noticed the difference. That is why in 2008 Ngunda reworked his land, setting up terraces to retain the water, and switched from planting corn to manioc.

"There were days my family had nothing to eat because of the lack of rain," says the 60-year-old farmer. Seventy percent of the people living in Kee regularly depend on humanitarian aid from either the government or international organizations. Ngunda says he had an idea. "I remembered what my parents did when they were hungry; they planted manioc."

Only the white parts of the root are edible from the woody shrub, also known as "cassava." It becomes especially valuable when there's not enough rain to harvest corn, Kenya's number one crop. "I get about 100 schillings (1.60 euro) for three manioc roots. With that I can buy one kilo of corn. That's enough to feed my family for a whole day."

And so Ngunda's 12-member family can eat year-round, he's decided to reserve two-thirds of his land for manioc.

Some 400 other farmers in the region have followed his example. "We don't only feel the effects of climate change in already dry regions," says Leonard Maweu, a spokesperson for a group of farmers. "Before, we received 800 millimeters of rain per year. That's down to 400 millimeters. And it's not constant throughout the year. Sometimes it rains for a whole week, and then it just stops."

Deadly Toxins

On top of needing less water, manioc also requires fewer pesticides. The root, however, can contain a toxic substance that can in some cases be deadly. "The stems we select for farmers are safe," says John Wambua from the Kenya Agricultural research Institute (KARI), a project partly financed by the European Union.

Still, for many Kenyans, manioc remains a poor man's crop. "Since the introduction of corn last century, most Kenyans have turned away from traditional farming," says Wambua, "but these droughts are pushing them to reconsider."

Seventy kilometers further south, in the village of Mbuvo, some 560 farmers – working together in a co-op – are harvesting their first year of manioc crops. The roots are weighed, washed and pealed. They are ground into fine powder and left to dry in the sun on big wooden planks.

"Nothing is lost and we make everything with manioc," explains Judah Kimev, a member of the co-op. On the table in front of him: bags filled with manioc flour, packets of crisps, animal feed, and dishes prepared with manioc leafs.

"Every year, the farmers get part of the profits," says Joseph Masyuki, president of the Mbuvo co-op. He hopes his organization will soon grow to include surrounding villages as well. "Since we were able to buy a tractor, the goal is to plant 300 hectares of manioc in 2012 and export our harvest to South Sudan, the UK and Germany."

Manioc isn't the only traditional crop that's currently making a comeback in Kenya. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute also pushes farmers to again plant sorghum, another plant that requires little water. Today, some 3000 Kenyan farmers are able to sell their harvest to local breweries.

"Students take HIV prevention classes at University," says KARI's John Wadua. "They should teach the same about food security."

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