Then, there were acres of land under tea, finger millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes, bananas, sugarcane, beans and maize. Even traditional vegetables were in plenty.
Often, she said they sprouted as weeds but were well tended to for consumption.
So many years have now past and the 70-year-old mother and grandmother is in a different world of worry over the state of her food reservoirs.
“Land is becoming smaller and smaller,” said Okeng’o who is married in Bigege village in Nyamira County.
“There is little space to grow maize, beans and sweet potatoes separately. You have to intercrop but the harvests are so unpredictable these days. It’s not a surprise harvesting one bag (90kg) from a plot, ” she said.
This has left her with little space to grow essential traditional vegetables, pushing her to adopt sack gardening, an innovative way of growing vegetables in sacks raised either vertically or horizontally.
“Sacks are even more manageable. I can easily irrigate them with water mixed with manure or urine from the cows. I had six sacks but the heavy rains and poking chicken destroyed the four,” said the elderly but passionate farmer who strictly monitors every farming activity her helpers undertake in the farm from feeding cows to harvesting crops.
Nyamira – sharing similar ecological conditions with the neighbouring Kisii County – is an upper midland zone whose population mainly depends on farming for livelihood.
The two counties, both in the upper midland zone, are largely assumed to be food secure because of the population’s historical love for bananas. Thousands of farmers grew the crop in large scale but the coverage has rapidly reduced into inches.
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In 2013, Kenya National Bureau of Statistics conducted a baseline survey with the University of Nairobi’s African Women’s Studies Centre on the state of food security in the country and counties selected from clustered zones were studied, Kisii being among them.
The findings indicate small uneconomical pieces of land being a major concern regarding their state of food security.
It was also a distressing matter to farmers in other counties. Low unreliable rainfall was equally another challenge farmers noted to be restraining their efforts to enjoy surplus harvests and balanced diet.
And Okeng’o is among the thousands of farmers in the larger spectrum likely to stare at empty food stores in the future as the current challenges are expected to severe with growing population and effects of changes to the climate becoming adverse.
But efforts are being made to boost productivity in these Western zones under the prevailing circumstances.
“We are encouraging farmers to practise intensive farming,” Vincent Sagwe, an agricultural expert and executive member for Agriculture in Kisii County said.
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Intensive farming is maximum utilisation of the available land to achieve maximum benefits or profits, he explained.
“We understand land is becoming a scarce resource and so our approach is advising farmers to for instance rear chickens and cows on zero graze. That takes a small piece of land allowing a farmer to grow other fast maturing and drought tolerant crops,” he said.
Shifting from kitchen gardens to sack gardens as the 70-year-old Okeng’o, is effective to boosting household food security amidst shrinking grounds for crop production, Sagwe underlined.
Deforestation is also another phenomenon affecting food production in the region, he said.
This has not only resulted in land degradation because of soil erosion but also climatic changes such as prolonged drought and unpredictable rainfall patterns, events he said were unknown to the farmers in the previous years.
“The forest cover in these areas has significantly reduced. This is because people have cleared large parts to accommodate their settlement,” he noted.
“It is now warmer than before. We are experiencing long periods of drought and you cannot tell when the long or short rains will come,” he said.
Kenya is among the countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa which the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) points to human suffering from hunger and malnutrition due to degraded land resulting from deforestation and poor land practices.
In its periodical evaluations on agricultural productivity in Africa, FAO said there would be a 58 percent increase in harvests should sustainable agricultural practices be widely adopted. End
by Robert Manyara/Xinhua/NewsGhana.com.gh Edited by Eric Bosire