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1. The national soil and water conservation project - Mackakos District
2. Lokitaung pastoral development project - Turkana district

Kenya is favoured by having high-altitude areas of good agricultural potential where most of the population lives. Nevertheless Kenya suffers occasional food shortages. One of the reasons for this is that over three quarters of the country is, in fact, arid or semi-arid. These areas are home to an increasing number of people as the country's population rises at about 4% per year - one of the fastest growth rates in Africa.

Agricultural production is threatened in many parts of the country by soil erosion. Soil conservation techniques for the highland areas are well developed and the conservation activities of self-help groups in Machakos District in eastern Kenya are particularly effective. In the more arid areas, such as Turkana district in the far north-west, water harvesting is needed for dryland cropping to be possible. There are several projects testing systems of water harvesting, which is a new technique for Kenya.

We have taken one project from each of these two contrasting districts and looked at their different approaches to soil and water conservation. They are:

• the National Soil and Water Conservation Project in Machakos District
• the Lokitaung Pastoral Development Project, based at Lokitaung in Turkana District


1. The national soil and water conservation project - Mackakos District


Machakos has the reputation for being the District with the best soil and water conservation record in Kenya. Over 70% of the arable land has been terraced. However during colonial days there was strong resistance to soil conservation within Machakos. The change in attitude has been the result of campaigns and support from the National Soil and Water Conservation Project. Success has also depended on the strength of the groups which implement much of the conservation. The farmers, many of whom are women, have recognised the benefits of terracing.

Conservation of moisture and also soil has led to better and more reliable crop yields.

Name: National Soil and Water Conservation Project (Machakos District)

Contact: The District Soil Conservation Officer, Machakos

Address: The District Agricultural Office, Machakos, Kenya

Status: Government Project

Sponsor/Donor: Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA)

Date of Start: 1974 project initiated; 1979 field work began in Machakos District; 1989 expanded to whole country


Machakos District in eastern Kenya has a large and growing population, which has to support itself on limited agricultural land. With an average of 72 people per square kilometre (census of 1979), most land which can be cropped is already in use. Much of the district has a marginal or semi-arid climate, and crop yields are commonly affected by lack of rainfall.

Annual Average Rainfall


Machakos is hilly, and erosion has become increasingly widespread over the last twenty years as more land is cleared for cultivation. Much newly cultivated land is to be found on the hillsides, where erosion rates are higher. Pressure for more agricultural land has meant that livestock are steadily being squeezed on to smaller and smaller areas of land, which are then overgrazed and more prone to erosion.

Over most of the District, families depend on home-grown food for their daily diet. Maize has become the most popular cereal during this century, replacing the more drought-resistant crops of sorghum and millet. Though the average rainfall figures for Machakos are quite high, there are regular periods of drought during the rainfall seasons. Lack of adequate rainfall for maize, and an ever decreasing supply of productive land has made the farmers appreciate the need for soil and water conservation.

Soil conservation was first introduced to the District by the colonial government in the 1940s. Some of the techniques developed during this period were effective, but the fact that they were based on enforced communal work meant that soil conservation was bitterly resented by the people, and it developed a bad name.

Little happened immediately after Independence in 1963, until a new soil and water conservation campaign began in the 1970s. This campaign started up just at the time when the people were becoming increasingly concerned about the future of their farm land. People were now anxious to listen to advice, and were ready to participate in conservation activities.

In summary:

• Slopes are steep in Machakos, and erosion rates high.
• Erosion is getting worse due to the expanding cropped area.
• Drought spells regularly affect yields, especially of maize.
• Enforced conservation in colonial times didn't work.
• By the 1970s people were ready to respond to a new campaign.


The National Soil and Water Conservation Project (NSWCP), supported by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), began in 1974. Machakos was chosen to be a pilot district, and a full soil and water conservation campaign was launched there in 1979. This became a national campaign with support from local government as well as the Ministry of Agriculture.

The overall objective of NSWCP is:

"to contribute to food security and to raise the standard of living of the rural population - through suitable conservation practices."

In the early days, some of the work was paid, but the policy quickly became one of voluntary participation, supported by:

• technical advice
• tools.

Machakos was an excellent choice of district to begin operations. This was because:

1. Erosion was a serious problem, and as we have seen, the people themselves were concerned about the effect on their crop yields.

2. A suitable soil and water conservation technique - fanya-juu terracing - was already well established in the district.

3. Strong and active self-help mwethya groups already existed and they were ready and willing to work on conservation projects.


"Fanya-juu" terracing

The focus of the soil and water conservation project has been on improving arable land. It is in the cropped fields where erosion has had the most damaging effect on productivity and farmers' income.


The basis of the system is the development of bench terraces over a period of time. The main technique used is fanya-juu terracing. This means, in Kiswahili, "do-up" and it refers to the way that soil is thrown up the slope from a ditch to form an earth embankment or bund. Several of these terrace banks are made across a field, on the contour, and over time the land between the bunds levels off. The field then develops the characteristic "steps" of bench terraces (see technical section). Soil and rainwater are conserved between the fanya-juu bunds.

The technical objective is two-fold:

• to keep rainfall where it falls;
• to keep soil in the field.

The end result is better growing conditions for the crop, both immediately, because of an increase in the amount of moisture available, and in the long term, because the soil is conserved.

Each farm is surveyed to see whether it requires a cutoff drain to protect it from surplus rainfall runoff. the cutoff drain is usually designed to hold all the runoff which flows into it, and therefore it is sometimes known as an "infiltration ditch".

The alignment of the terraces is surveyed along the contour using a simple line level. The spacing between the terraces depends on the slope of the land. (For details see technical section.)


Fodder grasses can be planted on the top of the terrace bank to hold the earth together. The farmer benefits from this source of valuable cattle feed, and land which might otherwise be wasted is put to good use. Likewise, the trenches are often used for growing bananas, which do well because of the extra water which collects there.

Fanya-juu terracing uses a considerable amount of labour but it is well understood by the people in eastern Kenya, and has been proved to be effective.

Since the mid-1980s the District has achieved an average of 1,000 kilometres of new fanya-juu terraces constructed each year, as well as several hundred kilometres of cutoff drains. The campaign has been so effective that it is estimated that 70% of all the cultivated land has now been terraced. From a hillside above Machakos town it is easy to believe these figures! The remaining unterraced plots are mainly in the lower, drier areas.


Terracing is not the only technical component of the project in Machakos. Also recommended and used, though on a smaller scale, are:

• grass strips along the contour
• contour ploughing
• simple gully control measures
• tree planting
• protection of riverbanks
• grazing control


Management of the Project:

NSWCP falls under the Ministry of Agriculture's Soil and Water Conservation Branch. In Machakos it is supervised by the District Soil Conservation Officer. Representatives of local farmers participate in planning through the District Agricultural Committee.

Organisation of Conservation Work:

The Ministry of Agriculture in Machakos holds soil conservation campaigns each year, but everyday conservation activities are organised and carried out by the people themselves.

Soil conservation work is normally undertaken by self-help mwethya groups. A group decides which member's land is to be terraced on which day, and then the members meet and work collectively.

Some individuals, who are wage earners, sometimes decide to employ people to carry out the work for them since family labour on its own is not enough.


Farmers are not paid for any soil conservation work on their own land in Machakos.


Some incentives however are given to assist them with the work. This help is in the form of hand tools, which wear out very quickly in the hard soils of the District. During 1988 over 4,000 tools were distributed for soil conservation work - these included shovels, hoes, pangas (machetes), mattocks, pickaxes, crowbars and wheelbarrows.

Tools are allocated according to availability, and the demand for tools is far greater than the number available. Most of the conservation work is done with the farmer's own tools.


The people of Machakos participate fully in the whole conservation programme. This participation is largely through the self-help mwethya groups. Mwethya groups are traditional in the area, though nowadays the majority are registered with the Ministry of Culture and Social Services. There are over 3,000 registered groups in Machakos District, with group membership ranging between 20 and 150. The vast majority of the members are women.

These well organised groups count soil conservation as one of their main activities. Mwethya groups have been the backbone of the soil conservation success story in Machakos. The sight of a hundred or so people digging a terrace together and singing at the same time is impressive!


The Kyungu Mwethya Group is active in an area some 5 kilometres to the south of Machakos town. There are 78 members of this group, which was founded in 1986. All the members are women. Very few are unmarried or younger than 25 years old. Some of their menfolk are away in Machakos or Nairobi earning wages, others are unemployed.

The chairperson, Munyira Maleve, explains how the membership fee is KSh 100 (about $5) and if anyone misses the weekly afternoon work-meeting on Wednesdays they pay a fine of KSh 10. The funds raised are used for a variety of purposes, including buying tools.

Each week the group meets on someone's farm to carry out soil conservation work or other related activities. Each member is given a fixed amount of work to do. For digging a fanya-juu terrace this is normally "two shovels length" of terracing. Each member brings her own tools. Group tools used to be shared, but that didn't prove a good system, as the tools were not looked after well. Now they are allocated to individuals.

By 1990 each member has had at least a portion of her farm terraced. This group also has a communal one-acre plot of onions and beans. Other groups in the area undertake income-generating activities such as shop-keeping, operating maize mills, or poultry keeping.

Munyira Maleve tells how the mwethya group acts as a kind of insurance helping out when a member falls sick. The group can decide to allocate one of its work days to planting, weeding or harvesting a member's plot for example. No wonder most married women in Machakos are members of mwethya groups!


Extension work is carried out in the same way as for crop and animal production. The Ministry of Agriculture has a well-organised system of advising farmers called the "training and visit" system. This consists of regular visits by extension agents to "contact farmers", carrying specific recommendations each time. The contact farmers then relay the recommendations to the rest of the community. Although the system is rather inflexible, it generally works well.

Before delivering messages, the Ministry's extension staff are trained through a system of monthly workshops. These workshops cover all aspects of agricultural production, and concentrate on soil conservation during certain periods of the year - for example after crops have been harvested in January. The soil and water conservation programme fits neatly into the extension workers' calendar. The main seasonal campaign takes place after the crops have been harvested, when there are no other "crop production messages" to give out.

In Machakos District the contact farmers for extension visits are groups rather than individuals since self-help groups in Machakos meet on a regular basis.


The main reason that terracing has been so successful in Machakos is the effect it has had on crop yields. Farmers can clearly see that terraced land produces better crops year after year than I neglected land. The reasons for this are many, but the most important one is that rainfall is kept where it falls.

Only a few detailed studies have been carried out to measure the effect of terracing on crop yields in Machakos, but a recent report shows that on average terraced fields yield 400 kg more maize per hectare than unterraced ones. This is an increase of 50% or more.

There are other important benefits of terracing:

• Where a whole catchment area has been conserved, there is an improvement in stream flow - very important for village water supply.

• Terracing is sometimes viewed as a "proof of occupancy" or a claim of ownership.

• Some farmers take great pride in the appearance of a well-terraced "shamba" (farm) and this leads to an overall improvement in the standard of farming.

Not everyone, however, has benefited, and there is still a significant proportion of crop land unterraced. There are a number of very poor, female-headed households where the women cannot find the time or the money to join in mwethya activities. Their land will remain prone to erosion and the poor crop yields which result.



Erosion of Grazing Land:

Although most of the cropped land is well conserved, there is a serious problem with erosion of grazing land. An appropriate approach to this problem needs to be developed.

Alternative Techniques:

Fanya-juu terracing is costly in terms of the considerable labour it requires. The project recognises this and has recently begun to work with cheaper alternatives such as vegetative strips and agro-forestry techniques. In drier areas, some sort of water harvesting system would be more appropriate.

Vegetation of Terrace Banks:

The Ministry recommends that terrace banks should be planted with fodder species, such as bane grass. So far this has been poorly adopted by farmers, with the result that the banks are prone to erosion. Part of the problem is an inadequate supply of planting material and a lack of transport.

Shortage of Tools:

There is a shortage of hand tools in Machakos. Tools wear out quickly in the hard soil, and some groups are hindered by a lack of implements to work with.


Although this is one of the best examples of soil conservation in sub-Saharan Africa, there is little information on the effect of conservation on crop yields or farm incomes. The project accepts that monitoring needs to be improved.

The Poorest Households:

The poorest households, which are often headed by women, frequently miss out on the benefits of soil conservation. A way of assisting poorer households in the community needs to be found.

Other Districts:

Machakos and neighbouring Kitui have an especially good record for soil conservation. But the programme has not yet been as effective elsewhere in Kenya. Where self-help groups are not part of the local tradition, and where returns from conservation are not so immediate, the techniques and approach need to be modified.


1. Machakos has a serious problem of soil erosion because of the steep slopes and the expanding area under cultivation.

2. Terracing in Machakos is popular due largely to the rapid benefits it gives in terms of improved crop performance.

3. The existence of well developed self-help groups is one of the main reasons for the success of conservation activities in Machakos. Elsewhere experience has shown that it is very difficult to form effective groups if they do not already exist.

4. The conservation technique used is not new to the area. It is technically sound, and because people have had experience of it for a number of years they accept it more readily. New ideas are much more difficult to introduce.

5. In Machakos, where the level of participation from the people is good, the most important support on offer from NSWCP is in the form of technical guidance and tools, which are an effective and suitable incentive.

6. The project has benefited from being integrated into the Ministry of Agriculture's well-established extension system.

7. Another factor in the success of the programme in Machakos has been the well-publicised campaigns for conservation.

8. Machakos is an example of a site-specific success story where a combination of factors has created favourable conditions for the programme. Reproducing the results in districts where conditions differ is not proving easy.

9. There are still problems to overcome. These include the lack of an effective conservation approach for the grazing areas, the need for suitable techniques in the driest zones, and the difficulty of involving the poorest households in community conservation activities.

Mukethe Mbithi is a member of the Kyungu Mwethya group

"Before making the terraces we didn't have good harvests because the soil was eroded. When we put fertilizer on, the water washed It into the river and the maize grew short. But when we made terraces the soil erosion stopped and we got good crops.

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