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:

Trauma awareness and resilience in Kenya

Over the past two years Kenya has been shaken by a series of violent attacks on civilians carried out by factions in Somalia’s ongoing civil war. These attacks have had a traumatic impact on the communities where they were carried out. Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development (DiPaD), headed by Doreen Ruto, is a Kenyan organization that has responded to these attacks by promoting trauma healing and psychosocial resiliency techniques. This article, based on an interview with Ruto, discusses the opportunities and challenges DiPaD has experienced as it has responded to recent traumatic emergencies in Kenya.

In September 2013 an attack on Kenya’s Westgate shopping mall took the lives of 67 individuals and left many more wounded. DiPaD organized workshops for caregivers and emergency first responders (Red Cross staff, journalists, military, police and pastors) in the wake of the attack. More recently, DiPaD responded to an attack at Moi University in Garrissa in April 2015 by conducting workshops for caregivers and first responders in trauma healing. DiPaD has also provided pre-deployment training in trauma awareness and psychosocial resilience for military members and their families, particularly those being deployed to high-risk areas. In all of these interventions, Ruto explains, DiPaD’s efforts go beyond addressing immediate psychosocial needs, also seeking to equip individuals with tools for long-term resilience.

In the five years that Ruto has been leading DiPaD, she has utilized and adapted knowledge, skills and resources from her education at Eastern Mennonite University. As a certified trainer for the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program, Ruto aims to accompany trauma survivors by equipping them with “self-help” tools for coping and healing. Ruto’s goal is for these tools to be part of a long-term response to trauma, as participants practice trauma healing skills with their friends and family following STAR workshops. Ruto stresses that DiPaD’s approach is a long-term one, which can present challenges. Some participants in DiPaD-organized trauma awareness and healing workshops come to the program with the idea that they will be receiving therapy. The organization’s training goals, however, include a more comprehensive approach to trauma that increases awareness of trauma and resilience while promoting trauma-informed dialogue.

Ruto has also grappled with adapting STAR resources, developed in the United States, for use in her Kenyan context. While Ruto appreciates efforts that STAR has made to enhance the effectiveness of its materials in multicultural settings, she finds that she must still make adaptations to account for different levels of literacy and cultural mores. As part of a recent trauma healing project in South Sudan, Ruto trained translators and local artists to work on translating STAR materials into nine of South Sudan’s major languages and contextualizing visual materials in STAR manuals for the local context.

Ruto explained that over the years some of her methods have changed due to her experience with trauma work. In addition to the typical STAR training format of four-and-a-half days, Ruto has also started a learning community to provide long-term follow-up for the trainees. She expects that after STAR trainees complete the workshop they will return to their communities, disseminate information they have learned and put their new skills into practice. She then has trainees come back together for what she calls harvest meetings to learn from one another’s activities and to discuss ongoing trauma response needs, successes and struggles within their communities.

After the April 2015 attack on Garissa University that killed 147 people and injured 79 others, DiPaD received an invitation from Radio Waumini, a broadcaster affiliated with the Catholic Church, to collaborate in producing 12 hour-long radio slots to air over a three month period focusing on trauma awareness and recovery in the wake of terrorist violence. These live broadcast programs not only educate listeners about trauma and its effects but also disseminate community-based strategies for addressing traumatic events. Ruto plans to invite survivors of the Westgate Mall attack to share personal experiences on the radio broadcast as a way to educate others.

Working as a trainer for trauma awareness and resilience is exhausting, Ruto shares, noting that few people work at trauma healing and psychosocial resilience in Kenya. Ruto observed that she has learned that she must recognize when to “step back” and be deliberate in finding time to rest and reflect. When asked about what imagery she would use to describe trauma work, Ruto said she compared it to a butterfly. “In the beginning, you only see ugliness, hurt, pain and darkness. Then you begin to see transformation and can recover and look toward a better future,” she shared. “Trauma can even help us to become better people.” Asked what advice Ruto has for other trauma practitioners, she reiterated the need to respond to immediate psychosocial needs while also working to build long-term resilience at individual and communal levels.

Beth Good, MCC Health Coordinator, interviewed Doreen Ruto, director
of Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development (DiPaD).

Drought mitigation in Kenya

To many who visit, East Africa appears as a paradise: pleasant weather, abundant wildlife, plentiful trees and blooming flowers throughout the year. Yet this region is also home to vast stretches of arid and semi-arid land, where obtaining sufficient water for crops, livestock and households is difficult at the best of times and impossible at the worst. The threat of hunger is perennial and ever present. Water availability is always at a premium. Life is always precarious, rendered more so by the threat (indeed, the virtual certainty) of major periodic droughts. For the Wakamba communities in Kenya, sand dams and dry land farming techniques are a response to those threats. In addition to meeting immediate needs of their community, these strategies illustrate the value of a shared commitment by local community groups to addressing their collective crisis and the local ingenuity and innovation available to mount an effective response.

The devastating droughts in the 1970s created desperate conditions in several different regions of Kenya. As community councils of elders in the region of Ukambani in Kenya considered disaster mitigation possibilities, the idea emerged from a local engineer to harvest water in structures called sand dams, allowing the use of stored water during the dry seasons. To the surprise of many, these sand dams proved highly effective. Yet the success of sand dams is not just one of innovative engineering. For Utooni Development Organization (UDO), the more profound lesson for community resilience and disaster mitigation is the spirit and flexibility embodied in community self-help groups.

For the Wakamba, the present ethos of self-help groups is deeply rooted in their historical-cultural traditions. Despite the disruption of many indigenous practices in Kenya beginning with colonial intervention, Wakamba communitarian traditions have persisted. In the indigenous mwethya—work group—individuals are seen as broadly obligated to the larger community from birth and throughout life. These individual obligations fit into this culture’s system of communal response to new influences, whether environmental, religious, economic or cultural. The communitarian nature of the mwethya provides the local foundation for the formation of self-help groups, the key local structure by which sand dams are built and managed.

Engaging communities to realize their own agency in finding solutions has long been a vexing problem in development. To this end, the self-help group model of development mandates the identification of local resources and ability to organize within a community as a prerequisite to any other work. In practice, members cooperate to form a governance structure and evaluate their particular community’s capacities and needs when proposing to work with UDO in the construction of sand dams. They also receive inspiration through interaction with other community self-help groups, which helps support continued creativity and motivation. To this end, UDO has found that local resources are often undervalued without the benefit of seeing through others’ eyes. After meeting another self-help group or participating in an exchange visit, community members more easily realize the value in their own communities.

As successful as these initiatives have been in mitigating against droughts, this type of communitarian work is not without its challenges. Groups have been accused of exclusivity by non-members, a sentiment that causes social tension and risks the possibility of conflict. Moreover, in some disaster situations, desperation among community members prevents, at least in the short term, full participation in community-wide visioning or work projects: rather than focusing on the group, some heads-of-household feel obligated to ensure the survival of their nuclear families using strategies that help themselves at the expense of others.

However, notwithstanding these challenges, communities continue to work together with an obligation that is felt across time and place. Through this collective endeavour, life is made more fruitful and disaster situations more tolerable for individual families and entire communities. Over the decades these community groups have served as powerful disaster mitigating influences. UDO and other agencies, both locally and internationally, facilitate training and sometimes provide resources, but the heart and soul of these self-help groups are the community members themselves. They identify needs and solutions in their communities, provide labor for work projects, pool funds to sponsor projects or investments, bank seeds for future use and come together to build and then manage water harvesting infrastructure, such as the hundreds of sand dams in Kenya.

Today the pernicious onset of climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of droughts and led to general climatic uncertainty for small-holder farmers. These weather patterns have turned planting and care of crops into guesswork, while never-before-seen early morning frost and new diseases present unknown challenges to food security. The resulting poor harvests leave farmers unable to feed their families, pay fees for school or save seeds and make plans for upcoming seasons. Some are forced to abandon families, farms and their communities, seeking opportunities for casual labour elsewhere. Others, still, engage in cash-generating, and environmentally harmful livelihood practices, such as making bricks and charcoal. At present, sand dams and other water harvesting and retention technologies remain a viable solution, but in the wake of such extreme climatic changes, there will be a need for continued adaptation and innovation for new preventive measures that make survival possible. Yet despite the uncertain future for these communities, the one certainty that UDO has learned is that self-help groups will be an essential part of an effective response.

Kevin M. Kamuya is the Chief Executive Officer of Utooni Development Organization (UDO) based in Machakos, Kenya. UDO is a winner of the 2014 UNDP Equator Prize for sustainable land management in Kenya. Rand Carpenter is Co-Representative for Mennonite Central Committee in Kenya.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.