In return for their labour, the farmers receive vouchers that can be redeemed for food as well as building materials for the community-owned dams.
When the rains do come to this hilly area they often come in intense bursts, stripping away fertile topsoil. Rainwater is lost through run-off, leaving seasonal river beds bone dry the rest of the year.
Terracing and dam construction can break this cycle.
"Efforts like this can help farmers hold the line and get back on their feet quickly," said Dan Rugabira, FAO Representative in Kenya. "By building up farmers' resilience to bad weather today, we help avoid crises tomorrow."
Meanwhile, seed stocks in the region are all but depleted and high food and fuel prices have placed an additional strain, forcing families to eat fewer meals a day or to sell off livestock.
The food situation in these parts of eastern Kenya, though difficult, is not as dire as in other areas of the country — or in Somalia.
"That is precisely why these types of projects are so crucial right now," said Rugabira. "We provide families with vouchers they can exchange for basic household items or food while at the same time building vital infrastructure to improve their resilience, so they are not completely blindsided each time the rains fail."
Building up farmers' resilience
With nearly $3.6 million in support from Sweden, FAO is working with the local government and development partners to reach out to the most vulnerable — especially the elderly, single mothers and people affected by HIV.
They are helping farmers terrace at least one acre of their fields to reduce soil erosion and run-off. The work is strenuous — too difficult to do alone. But by working in field school groups, farmers will be able to get their fields prepped in time for the rains, improving their chances of higher yields, especially when planting crops better suited to the dry environment.
Likewise, FAO and its partners are helping farmers construct simple sand dams in nearby riverbeds to capture and retain water for crop and household use. This will slash the hours they usually spend collecting water.
‘I could never have done this on my own'
Most people in this arid and semi-arid area survive by farming small plots of land and raising livestock — usually a few head of cattle or some goats or sheep.
They depend on the rains to grow cereal crops such as sorghum, millet and, increasingly, maize, as well as grain legumes such as cowpeas, green grams, beans and pigeon peas. However, consecutive years of patchy rainfall mean that farmers here have not had a decent harvest in two — even three — seasons.
During lean periods, poorer farmers often look for work elsewhere, "working on the farms of better-off households because they need money to buy food," said Paul Omanga, FAO crop production officer in Kenya. "They end up neglecting their own farms."
FAO's project, however, is providing farmers with incentives to improve their own plots. It is also teaching them about nutrition and avoiding HIV infection while simultaneously helping them to develop entrepreneurial skills in poultry raising or vegetable growing.
"I could never have done this on my own," said Jane Nzambi, a 43-year-old single mother of five, pointing to a deep trench crisscrossing her fields that will trap and store water for later use. "Without this help, I would still be pushing my wheel barrel to fetch water to sell to others."