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Agricultural Transformation of Kenya’s Makueni Drylands

It provides a pathway for rural transformation of Makueni County in Kenya, a dryland agricultural area populated by poor small-scale farmers

Photo of Paul Woomer

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Technologies for African Agriculture Transformation (TAAT) Clearinghouse, Kenya Office.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

The Kibwezi Hortipreneur Youth Group (KHYG, Youth Organization), a member of the IITA Agripreneur Youth Movement that operates a model farm and youth training in Makueni; Ikonic Agricultural Machinery Ltd. (Small Company) a business leader engaged in the marketing and improvement of small-scale agricultural equipment for small-scale farmers and is testing its innovative products with KHYG; and the County Government of Makueni (Government) based upon its current 2018-2019 Annual Development Plan and that operates the county agricultural extension service committed to modernizing Makueni’s agriculture. Other stakeholders in this transformational effort include The University of Nairobi, The World Food Program (WFP), National Agricultural and Rural Inclusive Growth Project (NARIGP), and The Kenya Cereal Enhancement Program-Climate Resilient Agricultural Livelihood. The team also includes member Compacts of the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation Program (TAAT).

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Makueni County, a semi-arid area in east Kenya covering 8,008 km^2, with specific attention to its under-utilized agricultural lands.

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Makueni is a critical test ground for agricultural transformation within African drylands. This farming area faces serious environmental and agricultural challenges, but at the same time offers developmental opportunity. Poverty is widespread across this community; and our team is committed to improving the livelihood of its people through the transition to more diversified, market-oriented agriculture. Climate change exacerbates this situation as more erratic and episodic weather leads to greater risk adversity, that in turn prompts opportunity for innovation. Our team represents the knowledge and technology holders needed for this transformation, but recognize that access to needed inputs and investment remains limiting. The situation is particularly acute for youth, who have access to online information and set ambitious targets for their lives but find little opportunity to achieve their goals despite completing their education. Our team regards directing these marginalized youth to productive agricultural career pathways as crucial to the Place’s economic future. This sets the stage for the team’s close relationship to the Place. For the most part, our team members were raised, live, work and do business there. Several of our team lead a well recognized youth movement and serve as local champions. Our team understands that modern agriculture is the mechanism that drives economic growth across Africa, including Kenya’s agricultural drylands, and gains are dependent upon the adoption of new, increasingly commercialized farm technologies. Our team sees itself as able to catalyze agricultural transformation through its understanding of these modernizing technologies, how they can become better accessed, and the food systems and wider rural economic changes that this transformation evokes. As the team is composed of a unique collection of community actors, scientists, development experts and businesspersons, we do so through a sense of enlightened self-interest

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Makueni is populated by the Akamba people who settled the semi-arid plains of eastern Kenya. They are derived from a late wave of the Bantu migration, discovering that the sub-humid highlands were securely occupied by the Kikuyu and closely related tribes and instead settled the drier lands to the east. While the area is dry for much of the year, it receives short bimodal rains that allows traditional small grains to be produced and livestock to be fed. It is situated in a transition zone, to the north are semi-humid croplands; to the east is Yatta, a massive volcanic remnant; to the west are pastoralist Masaai; and to the south is the famed Tsavo wildlife refuge and semi-desert unsuited for farming. An outsider’s impression of Makueni is tempered by time of year and how well the most recent rains have performed. Its midland plains are at an elevation of 700 MASL and punctuated by rounded hills and ancient volcanoes. The temperature is neither cool nor hot. Arrive during the late rains and find green bushy grasslands, well-fed livestock and fields of maize and legumes. Arrive in the dry season and find bare fields and hungry animals driven to remaining pockets of vegetation. Arrive during a drought and find desperate people, starving animals, and women and children carrying water long distances. Another feature is its equidistant position along the trade corridor between Mombasa and Nairobi. A stream of trucks ply this route, so that transient customers and distant markets are accessible through trading centers. These customers include tourists visiting Tsavo Park, but most of their commerce is directed to the lodges to the south. And while these tourists are confined within the park, its wildlife is not, and can cause much crop damage, creating mixed feelings toward wildlife conservation among farmers. To understand Makueni, one must visit its farming families because 78% of the people are engaged in agriculture. Houses are made of clay, roofs are iron sheets rather than thatch, and the floor dirt or concrete. Animals include cattle, sheep, goats and chickens. Many households have oxen for plowing and granaries for food storage but few have wells. Almost none have piped water or electricity. Granaries harbor mycotoxic fungi that pose risk to health. The poorest households have only a hoe and machete, and are inured to hard labor. Termites are ubiquitous, consuming all wooden structures. Families value education so that their children may escape poverty. They walk the roads to and from school in worn uniforms during the morning and afternoon; so be careful not to cover them with dust as you drive by. To understand Makueni, one must know its youth, particularly recent, disappointed school leavers. There are just no good jobs despite their education, so they weigh futures as poor farmers against the hazards of urban migration. Here is Makueni, land of spatial and temporal variability, a Place of both hardship and opportunity!

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Challenges before Makueni include widespread poverty, food and nutritional insecurity, and resource degradation. These challenges are manifest across six Themes: Environment, Diet, Economics, Culture, Technology and Policy. Rainfall has grown more erratic as a consequence of climate change, and the adoption of climate-smart technologies must be accelerated. These practices include water harvesting and soil protection. The diets of Makueni’s people vary greatly with season with well-balanced diets enjoyed during the wet seasons but poorer nutrition suffered throughout the dry one. Drought poses threat of famine to the poorest households. Its economy is only as strong as its most recent rains. Irregular food production has a huge negative impact upon economic growth because of insufficient supply for value-added and marketing enterprises. Following bumper harvests, commodity prices are poor and during dry seasons and droughts farmers have too little money to spend, affecting the economy as a whole. At the same time, more resilient rural enterprises are known, such as cultivation of drought tolerant cereals and legumes, mango and citrus growing, and beekeeping that serve to reduce household economic risk. Other households practice artisan handicrafts for which the Akamba are renowned. A great challenge before this community is the economic marginalization of youth, and its far-reaching social consequences. Education is valued as a means to escape poverty, but the lack of local employment opportunities places this commitment at risk. This is especially true for girls. Fortunately, primary school education is free in Kenya, but education at secondary and higher levels requires financial commitment by families. School leavers find a paucity of opportunities and are either forced into resigned laxity or adopt dangerous lifestyles. This challenge also drains local human resources as talented youth migrate away. The availability of farm technologies is described elsewhere in this application, and it is suffice to state that agricultural production cannot improve without the adoption of several modern farm technologies. Agrodealers are plentiful in market centers but demand for needed input products and labor-saving equipment remains weak. So too, the local policy dimensions were briefly described in this application. The county government appears to understand the challenges before it but has limited ability to evoke improvements at the required scale. It is one thing to plan yet another to achieve those plans in a timely, cost-effective manner, especially given the limited investment potential among stakeholders. In an optimistic sense, let us assume that today’s humanitarian challenges are met through planned agricultural transformation, and in 2050 concerns are more related to how best to sustain these gains among a growing population, and to progressively transition to stronger performing, more diversified agro-industries.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our Vision for food systems transformation is both realistic and paced. It departs from the rhetoric of unkempt promises and rather focuses upon introduction of proven agricultural technologies and dependable support services, many of them supplied through farmer organizations and the private sector. It builds upon the Makueni County Development Plan, particularly its plans for infrastructure improvement. All of the aforementioned challenges as they relate to Environment, Diet, Economics, Culture, Technology and Policy are addressed in systematic manner and are ultimately linked through improved and equitable water resource management. Within the scope of climate change, dryland farmers are not carbon emitters, but their lands have potential to sequester organic matter. Rewards for carbon gain must be considered, perhaps as subsidized tree planting and cover cropping, measures that also counteract soil degradation and erosion. Rural households with irrigation can operate year-round kitchen gardens that better diversify and balance diets, and little more than water is required to seize this opportunity. Expanding these gardens creates marketable surpluses and generates income, and enlarging them further leads to horticultural industry. Stronger rural economies result from increased productivity and greater market intelligence; goals best achieved through commodity associations; but there is little incentive for farmers to join groups unless reliable production surpluses are achieved. The year 2020 appears to be one of bumper harvests due to the strong ongoing “short rains” but moreover it should be viewed as the year where technology-led agricultural transformation gained traction. These technologies are too many to fully present in the limited assigned space of this application but consist of improved crop varieties exhibiting stress tolerance and biofortified nutritive properties, integrated soil fertility management that balances fertilizer use with recycling of crop residues and manures, integrated pest and disease management where producers respond quickly and effectively to outbreaks, and improved animal rearing reliant upon better breeds, feeds and veterinary care. Small-scale mechanization and value-added processing technologies must become increasingly available as well. These technologies are best bundled into toolkits for commercial distribution by well-informed agrodealers, and linked to ICT-led extension services. As economic benefits accrue, let culture adapt to opportunities for change while recognizing that traditional values are strong and well-founded. But let the culture of democracy grow, and voters must elect those who best represent their interests, particularly public investment in better rural infrastructure. In addition, investor’s forums must be organized that combine public and private sector assets. Lastly, women and youth must lead this transformation as innovators, new business operators and empowered citizens.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The ability of Makueni to develop a dynamic agro-industrial economy in the future depends upon the success of actions taken over the near-term. Foremost among these actions is the harnessing of diverse water resources in order to modernize its agricultural technologies. The massive seasonal discharge of the Galana River must be captured and distributed in a manner that results in production corridors producing grains, fruits and fish. Consumer trends and global demand must be considered in the design of these corridors. Clean energy technologies must be employed to harness and distribute this water including siphon systems and inline hydroelectric turbines, and solar power arrays. Situated within these corridors will be agro-industrial parks where food processing creates both profitable products and decent employment. This economic growth must factor in the massive visitor appeal of the Indian Ocean coast and wildlife tourism; indeed Makueni is well positioned to become its food and flower basket. Commercialized handicrafts add to this advantage. In the meanwhile, Makueni must overcome its widespread poverty and food and nutritional insecurity. Grand irrigation schemes are fine but more modest approaches to water management are also needed. Climate-smart technologies must be continuously identified and mobilized. Agricultural extension must be reoriented toward mobile information technologies and working through increasingly larger farmer organizations. Moreover, youth must be attracted to agricultural career pathways. An important step is the establishment of Youth Agribusiness Hubs where workspace and centralized services are provided to young Agripreneurs. Another is to strengthen agricultural training within secondary and vocational schools in a way that glamorizes rural lifestyles rather than presents farming as drudgery and servitude. Let the process of rural renaissance in Makueni gain momentum and provide an example across other African drylands.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Much can be done to improve food and nutritional security among Makueni’s small-scale farmers today, starting with the distribution of improved crop varieties. These improved varieties include drought-tolerant maize and sorghum, biofortified cassava and sweet potatoes, high iron beans, drought tolerant grain legumes (e.g. green gram, pigeon pea and soybean), even the new wheat varieties that adapted to higher temperatures and rust disease. Some of these crops can be grown twice a year under rain fed conditions, but production is much greater under irrigation. Production toolkits are available for each of these crops that address different levels of investment. The best adapted crops provide business opportunity for local seed producers. So too, specialized fertilizer blends are produced and marketed. Maize-based technologies include the release of atoxic fungi to inhibit the presence of aflatoxin, reducing a persistent and ominous risk to public health. Cassava and sweet potato are vegetatively propagated; providing cuttings of improved varieties to producers represents a business opportunity in its own right. Grain legumes balance diets but also result in nitrogen recycling through increased symbiotic fixation facilitated by the application of rhizobial inoculants. Consumption of these crops diversifies household diets and they are readily incorporated into traditional and widely-accepted foods. At the same time, these commodities are readily marketed and processed through small- and medium scale agro-industry. Reliable supply of these commodities at reasonable prices throughout the year and the profits and demand that their value-added products generate stimulate further investment in and lending to processers. This vision includes strong elements of agricultural extension reform, reliance upon information and communication technologies (ICT), and opportunities for greater mechanization and automation. The current agricultural extension agents are both under-resourced and overwhelmed by the tasks necessary to modernize agriculture. The model requiring agricultural extension agents to visit and advise individual farmers is impractical and outdated. Because of the ICT revolution, and the availability of handheld devices in even the remotest location, producers can now directly access information needed for farm planning, problem diagnostics and market intelligence. As a result, extension agents are now better positioned to work directly with farmer organizations, rather than individuals, or focusing their attention upon the poorest of the poor in a manner that strengthens safety nets and eases suffering. To achieve this end, these agents must be properly versed with ICT devices and their applications in order to transmit these advantages to others. Mechanization is a key to eliminating the stigma of hard work for too little returns that is associated with small-scale farming. Hand tractors, paddle weeders, power sprayers, land augers and other labor-saving devices are now available at affordable prices in Kenya, and distribution channels to Makueni ought to be strengthened. Scope exists for the design and commercialization of more ergonomic hand tools; the days of using heavy hoes and ineffectively swinging machetes are numbered. Drip irrigation is by far the most water efficient irrigation system, but needed expertise in its installation and equipment are in too short supply. Agrodealers should expand their services in this area, and be assisted to do so. Better transportation also becomes within the reach of farmers as they shift toward market production, whether it is through trailer attachments to hand tractors for local, heavy loads; or by operating a tricycle tuk tuk suited to passengers or cargo. As the first of these farmers mechanize, they are able to provide contract services to their neighbors. Mobilizing waters from the Galana is an essential driver of this vision. Discharge from this river varies between 20 and 160 cubic meters per second depending on the season, and is barely being utilized. The river enters Makueni at an elevation of 950 MASL with large areas of farmland below that, so there is scope for downward water delivery. Irrigation technologies are in place. The county development plan embraces expanded irrigation. Transition to irrigated agriculture offers interrelated benefits toward environmental protection, improved diets, stronger local economies, cultural values, technology adoption and policy-led infrastructural development. The pathway toward and targets of this vision are within reach. Imagine a series of agribusiness development clusters located along the Galana that advance irrigated farming and accompanying agro-industry. Each cluster contains a solar powered pump that feeds a reservoir, and includes an agribusiness park that supports orchards, horticulture and aquaculture. Additional value is produced through nearby agro-industries. Skill sets are provided through a vocational center. From this cluster, water distribution points supply community-led irrigation schemes. Each cluster provides agricultural, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for the local community and those attracted to it. A visitor and recreation center compliments these activities and further contributes to the quality of lives. A possible design considers that each agribusiness cluster would extract only 5% of the river volume at its lowest discharge, or 86,000 m3 per day. This water is sufficient to maintain a 2 km2 reservoir and irrigate about 8,000 ha of surrounding farmland, providing year-round benefits to about 16,000 farms producing two or three crops per year. Food production increases at least 48,000 tons per year. In combination, improved farming, horticulture, and aquaculture generate over $60 million in revenue per year, and value-added processing contributes at least another $15 million. One such industry is the production of blended animal and fish feeds that in turn stimulates modern livestock, poultry and aquacultural industries. Over 12,000 decent jobs are created. The facility serves as a magnet to enterprise and innovation, and is replicated by others. Environmental impacts are monitored to ensure that downstream impacts are minimized, including those on Tsavo’s habitats and wildlife. While the establishment of water delivery is critical to this Vision, it is not the only infrastructure requirement. Better roads are needed adjacent to the Galana River to open the area’s potential. The current roads servicing this area are unpaved, tortuous, not interconnected and may be impassible following heavy rains. Expected improvements in electricity and domestic water services as described in the current Makueni Development Plan ought to be completed. A fence along the northern boundary of Tsavo Park and other ecological deterrents should be contemplated if the invasion of wildlife compromises the gains from irrigated farming. This plan relies heavily upon the engagement of the people of Makueni at many levels. The identification of where irrigation facilities are best targeted depends heavily upon initial stakeholder participation. Infrastructure development by government will determine how irrigation water will become available, but community groups shall determine how it is used. Community groups should be prepared to contribute their time and effort toward this end, including their labor within public works. At the same time, these infrastructure projects should hire locally wherever possible. Wages can then be used in part to make the farm-level investments needed to connect with and benefit from transition to irrigated agriculture. Women and youth must be provided special consideration as stakeholders as described elsewhere in this application. At the same time, we recognize that neither women nor youth represent homogeneous factions, particularly with regard to their preferred career pathways, and opportunities for innovation as agro-industries grow and diversify must remain open. One such course is the development of textile industry around the production of sisal and harvest of baobab, and other artisan occupations such as leatherworks and woodcarving. Another is related to the recognition that as farms commercialize, they become more dependent upon service providers, who in turn require training and technical backstopping. This leads us to a brief consideration of what the next steps forward are. Due attention was paid to the current Makueni County Development Plan, its targets for 2025, and this Vision assists in its completion and trajectory for an additional quarter century. However, neither plan considers how to raise revenues for its public works or to better attract the private sector as investors. Technically, the current county biennial plan published in August 2017 has expired, and it is important that this Vision be considered within whatever follows. Moreover, the need for private investment and commitment of public financial institutions should be formalized for the required water delivery infrastructure to be secured. This may be achieved in large part by operating a Makueni County Agriculture Investment Office. Major events that showcase investment opportunity are needed, and attractive mechanisms developed for those who respond positively. Similar forums should be held at the annual Makueni Agricultural Show and the county-level International Youth Day and World Food Day events. Too often, these events are dominated by politicians rather than stakeholders, experienced planners and agribusiness champions. Indeed, the content of future forums must be more representative and impactful so that 2020 becomes recognized as the year that agricultural transformation in Makueni gained critical momentum, achieving food and nutritional security by 2025, and that by 2050 Makueni achieves a fully agro-industrialized food system.

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Team (4)

Welissa's profile
Welissa Mulei

Role added on team:

"Welissa was born and raised in Makueni, "The Place" and has worked in the Agricultural Research and Development Sector for a decade. Having been raised in a farming family and community she is passionate about rural development and improving the lives of small scale farmers. Makueni has always suffered from drought and famine which greatly and negatively affects the lives and motivations of generations. She was very instrumental in this Vision and actively participated in mobilization of parties"

Paul's profile
Elizabeth's profile
Elizabeth Muema

Role added on team:

"Elizabeth was born and raised in "The Place". She is the leader of the Kibwezi Hortipreneur Youth Group (KHYG) based in Makueni. The Group is a member of the IITA Agripreneur Youth Movement and operates a model farm and youth training in Makueni. She leads advocacy efforts in youth engangement in productive agribusiness and community outreach in improved agricultural technologies and good agricultural practices."

Charles's profile
Charles Kibiru

Role added on team:

"Charles is the CEO of Ikonic Agricultural Machinery Ltd, a Kenyan based small company. He is a business leader engaged in the marketing and improvement of small-scale agricultural equipment for small-scale farmers and is testing its innovative products with KHYG; and the County Government of Makueni (Government) based upon its current 2018-2019 Annual Development Plan and that operates the county agricultural extension service committed to modernizing Makueni’s agriculture."


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Welcome @agricultural transformation of Kenya to the Vision Prize!
How might your work today look like in 2050 if you were to upset the current trends and build a new trajectory for the future that inspires others around you to collaborate? To help you speculate what your future Vision could look like, you can find some guiding principles on Future Casting and inspiration in the Vision Prize Toolkit in Chapter 3 under Tools of Transformation.

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