Remaking The Rift Valley

Until recently, Chege Mwangi could only watch helplessly as bits of his one-acre farm – and his family’s future – washed down the steep slopes of Kenya’s Abardares Hills and into the Terasha River below. Today, however, his cabbages are bursting, his dairy cow is well-fed, and his children are in school.

It’s a change that began 40 kilometers (25 miles) downstream, where sediment and fertilizer from thousands of farms like Mwangi’s are clogging the intake valves of greenhouses along the shores of Lake Naivasha. Environmental nonprofit WWF persuaded more than half the flower growers there to join a “Payments for Watershed Services” (PWS) program that aims to reduce runoff by supporting sustainable agriculture in throughout the watershed.

In Mwangi’s case, that meant introduction of strips of Napier grass – also known as “elephant grass” – which grows wild across the dry African plains. Long a favorite of cattlemen, Napier grass is now a staple of sustainable agriculture programs across Kenya – and with good reason. First, it needs little in the way of water and fertilizer. Second, it attracts predatory insects that devour pests. Third, it pulls nitrogen from the air and “fixes” it in the soil, where it acts as a natural fertilizer. Fourth, it provides fodder for dairy operations. Fifth – and most critically – it captures soil that slides down the hills whenever the rains come – forming natural terraces over time.

It’s a miracle crop of sorts, delivered courtesy of flower growers 20 kilometers downstream under a program developed by the environmental organization WWF and the humanitarian organization CARE. For flower growers, the aim is to reduce sedimentation that’s killing their business. The dirt gunks up the lines for their greenhouses, and the fertilizer feeds water hyacinths that have blanketed parts of the lake, suffocating the fish below.

If the plan works, it will reshape the landscape across Lake Naivasha’s 3400-square-kilometer (2100-mile) catchment and preserve an economy that employs hundreds of thousands of people. If it fails, there’s little hope that those who live off the lake can continue to do so.

“It all fits together,” says Peter Muigai, a community mobilization officer for WWF, as he looks out over Mwangi’s now-thriving acre of land. “For Naivasha to exist, the rivers from this side of the catchment have to flow, and increasingly, they don’t.”

He says that for the program to really work, it will have to win the participation of all the flower growers in the region as well as geothermal providers and hotels. It will reshape the landscape across Lake Naivasha’s 3400-square-kilometer (2100-mile) catchment and preserve an economy that employs hundreds of thousands of people. If it fails, there’s little hope that those who live off the lake can continue to do so.

A Simple Solution

 

Farms like Mwangi's (foreground) contrast sharply with those that have not yet joined the program (background).

Farms like Mwangi’s (foreground) contrast sharply with those that have not yet joined the program (background).

 

For Mwangi and his neighbors, it’s working quite well, and water samples show dramatic reductions in sediment up in the catchment. The effects, however, have not yet trickled down to Lake Naivasha itself. For that to happen, the program will have to include almost all of the farmers in the catchment.

“We’re dealing with 785 farmers now, but there are 5,000 households up there,” says Peter Muigai, a community mobilization officer for WWF. “To reach them all, we’ll need buy-in from all the flower growers along the lake, as well as nearby geothermal power plants and hotels.”

Technically, the arrangement is called a “Payments for Watershed Services” program, which is a financing mechanism through which downstream water users can “buy” ecosystem services from upstream “sellers” who maintain the watershed. James Waweru runs the Flower Business Park Management Ltd., which coordinates activities of several flower-growers along the lake’s shore. He joined as a buyer in 2012, after visiting Mwangi’s farm.

Strips of Napier Grass and trees will form these steep slopes into terraces. One year after planting, the uphill side is already a foot higher than the downhill side.

Strips of Napier Grass and trees will form these steep slopes into terraces. One year after planting, the uphill side is already a foot higher than the downhill side.

“The difference between those who subscribed to PWS and those who didn’t was quite apparent,” he says.

Payments are brokered through the Upper Tarusha Water Resource User Association (UTWRUA), a private organization that coordinates water issues in Mwangi’s region, and the sellers are all small farmers like Mwangi, whose plots range in size from a quarter-acre to 15 acres. In addition to the grass and trees, each received a $17 voucher that they could use for their own inputs. Mwangi used his to buy medicine for his cow and anti-fungal spray for his potatoes.

But there’s a complication: climate-change has led to higher highs during the day and lower lows at night. The amount of rain is about the same, but it’s coming in massive gushes followed by long dry spells. This all makes farming even more uncertain than it was before, says Muigai.

“[Mwangi has] got to plant with uncertainty and frost in mind,” he says. “That probably means more cabbages, which have the advantage of being frost-resistant because they have big, waxy cuticles – unlike potatoes, which are more susceptible to frost.”

Even though the potato itself is underground, the leaves that support it freeze easily. When that happens, the tuber that’s growing below dies as well.

Learn More

This story has been adapted from a four-part series on Ecosystem Marketplace examining the interplay between economy and ecology in Kenya’s Lake Naivasha Watershed. To learn more, simply follow the links below

Part One:
Kenyan Flower-Growers Use Watershed Payments To Save Their Lake And Their Livelihoods introduces the players and the problem.

Part Two:
PWS In Kenya: How WWF And CARE Found Common Ground In High Hills explains the rationale behind the PWS program and tells you how it got started.

Part Three:
Tying The Knot: Buyers And Sellers In Kenyan PWS examines the challenge of attracting – and keeping – buyers and sellers.

Part Four:
Chege Mwangi: Kenyan Farmer Boosts Yields With Payments For Watershed Services examines the impact that PWS has had on one Kenyan farmer participating in the program.

Learn More
Steve Zwick

I edit Ecosystem Marketplace, which is a news service focused on environmental finance. With this blog, I hope to offer coverage that is a bit lighter and more holistic than what we offer on EM.

  4 comments for “Remaking The Rift Valley

  1. Chris Mason
    February 7, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    good to know about elephant grass

  2. Chris Mason
    February 7, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    The pay for watershed system is velly intellesting. The versatility of the Napier grass, its many contributions to sustainability, are a wonder to behold

    • SteveZ62
      February 7, 2014 at 8:00 pm

      What really impressed me is the way they’ve created a sustainable structure by going through the water board. They’ve managed to get all these groups with mutual needs and string them together in a positive way. We’ll see if it works…

      • Chris Mason
        February 8, 2014 at 1:08 am

        It’s true, it’s the developing countries that can be most creative about sustainability

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