An irrigation project established last year in Turkana County by the national government has run into trouble after its first crop failed due to insufficient water.
The Sh70 million project run by Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) had planted maize on 150 acres of land, and there were plans to increase this to 500 acres.
It was the first effort by the government to use the vast water aquifer discovered in the county to grow crops for the semi-arid region using a technology known as centre pivot.
Together with Galana-Kulalu in Kilifi that is also in jeopardy, this was supposed to be Jubilee’s answer to hunger in Kenya; use irrigation to expand production in virgin lands away from the traditional regions which depend on rain and whose soils have been depleted by decades of cultivation.
However, just like the Kilifi project, which was to put nearly a million acres under irrigation, water has been the big problem for the Turkana project.
Now KVDA has gone back to the drawing board to boost water supply and make another attempt at irrigation.
The authority says it hopes to expand the project to cover 1,000 acres in efforts to feed the region that is currently hit hard by drought.
The water problem has also hit a similar project in the area started by the county government.
Less than a kilometre away, the Napuu Drip Irrigation project had subdivided the land to pastoral villagers who enthusiastically took to farming.
Ms Cecila Amekwi, a beneficiary who specialised in growing vegetables, told Nation that the water problem had killed her farming dream.
The farms that looked promising after Water Minister Eugene Wamalwa and his Devolution counterpart Mwangi Kiunjuri visited to roll-out the project are now abandoned, their withered crops having been consumed by animals.
Today, the villagers of Napuu, who had hoped to produce their own food, are back to depending on relief.
KVDA Turkana Regional Director Samwel Kigen said that insufficient water forced them to reduce land under cultivation to less than 50 acres.
“We expected an acre to give us about 25 bags of 90kg. But inconsistency in water provision resulted in withering of the crop that we supplied to villagers as free fodder.”
“We have currently done a geological survey to identify best sites within the farm to drill two boreholes for irrigating crops,” he said.
KVDA had, before the roll-out of the project, installed two huge water tanks. Water was to be pumped using solar to the tanks, each with a capacity of 1.7 million litres and then with electricity or an already installed back-up generators, the water would be channelled to the centre pivot machines, each designated to irrigate 75 acres.
The land not served with the pivot machine was to have fruit orchards for maximum utilisation.
Turkana County is desperately in need of reliable supply of affordable food, especially fresh farm produce. Nearly 90 per cent of the cereals and vegetables consumed in Turkana is imported from Pokot, Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu and on average it takes 20 hours to reach Lodwar market.
However, KVDA has remained optimistic that the second crop will have better yields as the agency had already drilled its own borehole inside the farm to provide enough water for the farm.
Unlike the county government, KVDA which runs similar projects like Aror in Elgeyo Marakwet and Weiwei in West Pokot County had opted not to subdivide the land.
“Our experience is that when you subdivide land and leave it to the community without central management, after a while it will be abandoned as it depends on the capacity and understanding of the individual farmer,” said KVDA Managing Director when he visited to assess the project last year.
The plan was to form a management committee composed of farmers to be allocated 100 acres and coordinated by the authority.
The land was to be managed jointly as a single farm unit through a cooperative. Farmers can all grow one crop for food as the main goal is for them to be food sufficient and the next crop can be a cash crop just like it has worked for the other projects in Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot.
Some 50 acres was to be set aside for KVDA to do experimental farming and training. Environmentalists in Turkana say the aquifer irrigation project is a relief to the two permanent rivers in the county that have been relied on to irrigate farms in a bid to address food security.