Forest Garden Farmers Persevere In Face of East Africa Floods
East Africa’s rainy season this year wreaked havoc on the region from March to May, causing destructive and deadly flash floods, landslides and sinkholes. More than 481,000 people are now displaced and more than 360 people have died. When Lake Victoria burst its shoreline, an immediate concern was the region’s leading industries; agriculture, livestock farming and fishing. Today, as the rains have subsided, the agricultural implications remain.
Spanning 68,000 square kilometers in East Africa, the Lake Victoria Basin is home to around 40 million people across three countries; Kenya (6% by area), Uganda (43%), and Tanzania (51%). As the lake water levels surpassed historic levels, the adjacent farmlands disappeared beneath the flood waters and farmers were helpless to stop it.
Unfortunately, the flooding in East Africa brings new challenges to farmers who have long been tested by irregular rains, depleting soil nutrients, and poor yields.
Trees for the Future (TREES) works with farmers affected by cyclical drought and flooding in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. TREES trains farmers in a sustainable agroforestry method called the Forest Garden Approach, helping farmers revitalize their lands and plant themselves out of hunger and poverty. While Forest Garden farmers in the flood zone are not immune to the flood waters, their training from TREES has helped them prepare their land for these potentially catastrophic events.
When they first design their Forest Gardens, TREES staff show farmers how to stabilize soil and control the flow of water across the property.
“We teach farmers to strategically design their farmland so that it works for them,” says TREES Deputy Director of Training Elizabeth Moore. “The presence of trees on farms can help with mitigating some damage from flooding, by improving the soil’s capacity to absorb water and breaking the intensity of water moving onto or through land. Observation and knowing your land is key.”
In flood-prone areas, working with raised vegetable beds can be helpful in lifting the vegetables up above the level of standing water. Some farmers may have systems of canals or trenches that direct water around a vegetable growing area. TREES works with farmers to ensure they are matching the plants with the environment, so selecting trees that are ok with occasional floods and “wet feet” is an important factor, as well as placing shorter season or lower value crops in more flood-prone areas and longer season or higher value crops in more protected areas of the Forest Garden.
While these techniques help protect farmers from feeling the full force of flood damages, TREES Lead Technician for Busia 3 in Uganda, Francis Muliro says farmers are still facing the challenges of standing water.
“Forest Garden farmers in these [areas] are struggling because the water has covered their ready crops like maize and potatoes, causing them to rot,” Francis says, “bringing about losses in terms of income and food for their families.”
Crop loss at any rate is discouraging and potentially detrimental for farmers living from one harvest to the next. Forest Garden farmers find some protection when they diversify the crops they grow and sell, allowing them to see more paydays and giving them the ability to establish savings in the event that they do lose a crop.
“Farming is a challenging profession that is heavily impacted by factors outside of the farmer’s control. What the Forest Garden Approach is able to do is try to help on the field level so that farmers can be as resilient as possible in the face of these challenges, with possible multiple harvests, diversification of crops, strategic placement of crops,” Moore says.
Homa Bay Forest Garden farmer Maurice lost several vegetable crops to the floods, but because he has a diverse number of crops, which are planted and grown at different times, he remains optimistic.
“Despite the destruction, I have not given up on farming as the Forest Garden Approach has helped me focus on different crops,” he says.
TREES staff say farmers face challenges like delays in planting crops as they wait for the flood waters to recede, but TREES Regional Coordinator Gedion Osoti says farmers are taught to take advantage of the rains, even when they cause this level of flooding.
“Forest Gardening is a handy approach amidst these calamities! Even with the floods farmers need to realize the importance of conserving water,” Osoti says. “Sometimes the rains only fall for a short period, [so we teach farmers that] the water could be collected and used during dry periods.”
Rainwater collection is yet another skill farmers learn from TREES staff. During the rainy season, rainwater is routed through trenches to small ponds. This helps reduce flooding in some low lying areas and reduces soil erosion and contamination of surface water due to runoff. (As trees grow they effectively channel rainwater into the water table during heavy rain events.) These practices by Forest Garden farmers also help to reduce the strain on groundwater supply during the dry season. There is great potential to collect rainwater from roofs in large storage tanks at an average cost of $132 per farming family. This is an additional project component that TREES aims to fund in the future.
“Regenerative agriculture practices work to provide greater resilience for farmers, as well as for the environment. Forest Garden farmers work with natural systems – how nature was designed – to build environmental resilience in their communities,” Moore says.
While the Forest Garden Approach supports environmental resilience, Moore adds that systemic change is needed to avoid large scale events. “To truly prevent the losses from large scale flooding, the effort and change has to be made at all levels, including global climate change mitigation and reforestation of deforested hillsides at a community level.”
Forest Garden farmers like Maurice will continue improving their own land and their impact on the environment through farming, despite the challenges.
”Trials in life help us to grow. They make us better,” Osoti says. “We can challenge ourselves to become a better version of ourselves as a result of the flood, and to take what we have learned and help others.”
About 30% of the more than 11,000 Forest Garden farmers in the region were impacted by the Spring rains that flooded lowland areas in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, but TREES staff will continue working with them to stay on track for the year’s planting and harvesting periods.