Food security strategies in Kenya

In the semi-arid region of Machakos County, Kenya, poor soil quality, population growth and shifting climate patterns make managing natural resources for food security a continual challenge. Kenyan organizations such as Utooni Development Organization (UDO), an MCC partner, are dedicated to promoting strategies for sustainable livelihoods under these conditions. UDO is known for promoting sand dams as a method of water harvesting, but also implements a range of programs designed to improve food security. MCC and Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) recently partnered with UDO on an extensive review of its programming to assess program impact and to identify factors associated with the successful adoption of strategies promoted by UDO. Building on the findings of that review, this article will argue that farmer ownership (or lack thereof) was the key factor in the success or failure of specific food security strategies promoted by UDO.

The UDO evaluation analyzed six food security strategies promoted by UDO: water harvesting through sand dams and terraces, drought-tolerant grain crops, agroforestry, livestock production and irrigation. The review affirmed the overall impact that UDO’s community-based approach has had on local communities and identified clear successes. For instance, villagers on average reported an increase in food security by 2.7 months due to UDO activities. Joyce Musyoka of the Kulunga Self Help Group tells a typical story illustrating the impact of sand dams on food security and gender roles: “before [the sand dam] I had to travel four hours every day to fetch water, and the amount I was able to fetch was not enough to cover our family needs.” Of course, the review also found that some UDO strategies, such as terracing and drought-tolerant crops, did not result in wide-spread adoption.

The review identified interesting variations in how a sense of ownership plays a key role in the successful adoption and impact of these different food security strategies. For example, the review found that in some cases projects that did not include the free distribution of external inputs (e.g. seeds) experienced greater success than projects that did distribute such inputs. This lesson was exemplified by the difference between the clearer successes of agroforestry strategies and the more ambiguous results of drought-tolerant crops and terracing. Communities spontaneously adopted a strategy of planting fruit trees and reforestation, despite very limited inputs. Indeed, the review found encouraging evidence of a high level of seed collection, seedling production, tree grafting and the establishment of orchards thanks to UDO activities. Planting of drought-tolerant crops, on the other hand, relied on a greater input strategy. Most farmers depended on free seed from UDO, rather than planting saved seed or purchasing new seed, and were not passionate about continuing to grow these crops. Likewise, with improved terracing practices, farmers readily improved terraces as part of food-for-work programs, but farmer enthusiasm did not continue once these food-for-work efforts ceased, and terraces often later fell into disrepair. Interestingly, farmers readily acknowledged that terraces improved yields and yet were not invested in continuing the practice in the absence of external inputs. Clearly the success of particular technologies was related to how motivated farmers were to personally invest in the practice. While I argue here that farmer investment can sometimes be adversely affected by input-intensive strategies, further study is required to explore other possible factors including farmer seed preferences, extension practices, household labour, market availability of seed and purchasing power.

Sand dam projects present a different strategy for encouraging a sense of ownership. Although UDO provides materials for sand dam construction, along with technical guidance on siting and design, communities must organize the construction event, provide the labor for dam construction, and together establish the guidelines for the sand dam’s use. Communities thus feel ownership of the dams and are motivated to use the dams to improve their livelihoods. For instance, farmers experiment on ways to take advantage of increased groundwater for cropping along the banks. Thus, sand dams are “adopted” in the sense that they are heavily utilized, a result which derives from the particular way they are implemented through a process of group investment. The review therefore noted a crucial difference among UDO projects with regards to inputs, but a common strategy with regard to promoting a sense of ownership. Whereas a practice like agro-forestry can be self-sustaining without external inputs, this is unlikely to happen with sand dams, which have high upfront costs.

Encouraging a sense of ownership can heighten certain challenges associated with communal resource management. For instance, because sand dams are communal endeavors, they are susceptible to conflicts or mismanagement of a limited resource (water from the dams will run out if overused). Communities must manage water resources in such a way as to avoid a “tragedy of the commons,” wherein individuals maximizing use of resources for themselves might compromise the long-term sustainability of the resource itself. For instance, a farmer’s livestock also benefits from water availability at sand dams, but the presence of livestock (and in particular their waste) can easily contaminate water supplies that impact the entire community.

A further challenge is that resource management conflicts can be heightened by the fact that available water benefits both users who invested time and labor in sand dam construction and users who did not help. As a result, users sometimes feel that the benefits are not equitably distributed according to the effort invested in the project. Conflict over ownership of the resource also occurs external to the community, most notably as the region is the primary source for sand needed to make concrete for the booming construction industry of nearby Nairobi. Sand dams are easy sources for trucks to harvest sand, with unscrupulous actors either taking the sand without consulting the community or negotiating with some (but usually not all) members of the community to extract this resource. In all these situations, an increased sense of ownership has the potential to heighten tensions over natural resources.

Climate change is already a reality in Machakos, as farmers are quick to explain how long-term rainfall patterns have changed, disrupting their farming practices. Evaluations such as the review of UDO’s efforts become all the more important as a means to pause and take stock of what strategies will effectively increase the resilience of communities to changing circumstances.

Doug Graber Neufeld is a water and livelihoods advisor with MCC in Nairobi, Kenya.

Learn more:

Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Video: “Dancing on Water: Sand Dams in Kenya.” (2011). Available at:

Cruickshank, Abby. “These Are Our Water Pipes, Sand Dams, Women and Donkeys—Dealing with Water Scarcity in Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands.” (2010) Available at:

Ertsen, M., and Hut, R. “Two Waterfalls Do Not Hear Each Other: Sand-Storage Dams, Science and Sustainable Development in Kenya.” Physics and Chemistry of the Earth 34 (2009): 14–22.

Teel, Wayne. “The Impact of Sand Dams on Community Development in Semi-Arid Agricultural Areas in Kenya.” Utooni Development Organization (2011). Available at:

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