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Organic agriculture in Kenya: fusion of science and traditional knowledge

Nehemiah Mihindo
Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, Nairobi, Kenya

Introduction

Humankind has become more and more conscious of its ephemeral nature and of the fragility of our Earth in the face of technological development. This technology has precipitated many of our problems because it does not take into account local culture - local communities' preferences, skills and knowledge. As a result, people are left with a depleted and abused environment and deepening moral apathy. Success in development is more likely to be achieved when traditional knowledge systems are fused with modern technology. Traditional knowledge is dynamic and well adapted to local circumstances, forming the basis for people's day-to-day decision-making. It is often localized and restricted and there is much scope for sharing this knowledge more widely. A local technology already known and used in one context can be transferred for use in another in which it was previously unknown.

Traditional knowledge is strong on the practical side but sometimes has a weak theoretical foundation, making it difficult for it to be applied more widely. Existing practices which are beneficial, but are being lost in a rapidly changing world, can be protected if the formal sector can reinforce them and relate them to the growing population. An example is organic agriculture.

Organic agriculture

Modern conventional agriculture can be very expensive for farmers. The cost of inputs such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides and livestock feeds and drugs continues to rise beyond the ability of the smallholder. Furthermore, these inputs can be dangerous to our bodies when mishandled and have been a main cause of health problems. They also cause environmental pollution.

To alleviate this situation, farmers need to practise alternatives which are more environmentally friendly. Such alternatives include organic farming, which is a blend of traditional and modern farming systems. Traditional practices enabled communities to farm for generations before the introduction of modern technologies. This traditional wisdom needs to be documented and its value reinforced. The Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF) trains smallholder farmers in ways of using locally available resources, including local knowledge, for maximum production to feed a growing population. This can be realized by a holistic approach to the farming system, including such factors as choice of crops, planting systems, crop storage, animal husbandry, crop protection and soil conservation.

KIOF offers a 1-week intensive training course to farmers on composting, intercropping, traditional crops and pest/disease management. There is a follow-up to monitor and support adoption. Many farmers have been trained how to use their traditional knowledge for maximum crop production. Farmers have long been using plant and animal manures, but guidance on optimal timing, placement and quantity was needed. Farmers also know which crops grow well together and those which are not compatible. Intercropping and crop rotation are other traditional practices where science can support the traditional process of trial and error. In pest and disease management, organic farming first tries to avoid the problem whenever possible, for example by the use of resistant local varieties and by encouraging natural enemies. Intercropping with repellent crops is also done.

Traditional crops

Support and encouragement are also needed for the continued use by farmers of local traditional crops and varieties, which are better adapted to local environmental conditions and more stable in their yield. It is a great loss when a traditional crop variety falls out of use or is no longer available. Many of the traditional species are superior in food value. Traditional crops and varieties also tend to have fewer disease problems. Leafy traditional vegetables are very important in the village diet as they provide much-needed nutrients. However, most of what is known about these plants is to be found in the memories of experienced local farmers. There is a danger that much of this information about traditional vegetables may be lost as they are replaced by exotic ones. A survey by KIOF has shown that in some areas very few farmers now grow traditional vegetables. KIOF emphasizes to farmers the importance of growing both traditional vegetables such as Gynadropsis gynandra, Solarium nigrum, Vigna unguiculata, Amaranthus sp. and Cucurbita maxima, as well as exotic ones such as cabbages.


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