It is a relatively old technology whose usefulness was until recently confined to few farming households in western Kenyan districts around Lake Victoria. Now however, push-pull, a novel farming system developed by icipe, Rothamsted Research (UK) and national partners in East Africa, is raising interests from beyond Kenya’s borders and scientists think it holds the key to unraveling challenges climate change portends to farmers in drier parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
A 2.9 million Euro funding from the European Union could just have been what this technology needed to have it scaled up its anti-striga and anti-stemborers qualities.
icipe Director General, Prof. Christian Borgemeister says stemborers, parasitic striga weeds and poor soil fertility are the three main constraints to efficient production of cereals in most sub-Saharan Africa.
Losses caused by stemborers can reach as high as 80% in some areas and an average of about 15-40% in others.
Crop failures attributed to striga weeds on the other hand range between 30 and 100% along a large belt that cuts through most of sub-Saharan African countries from the east to the west, and are often exacerbated by the low soil fertility prevalent in the region.
The soils are highly degraded due to continuous cropping with limited or no external inputs to improve soil fertility. When the two pests occur together, farmers often lose their entire crop.
Crop losses caused by stemborers and striga weeds amount to about US $ 7 billion annually, affecting mostly the resource poor subsistence farmers.
Since being founded in 1997, the push-pull technology has so far helped close to 40, 000 farmers. “But time to move it to other ecological zones is now”, said Prof Christian.
“In the past 17 years, ‘farmers that have adopted the technology have seen maize yields increase between one ton to 3.5 tonnes per hectare with minimal inputs. This action has improved the food security for close to 250,000 people in the region”.
‘Push-pull’ simultaneously addresses the major constraints of cereal-based farming system, which include striga weeds, stemborer pests and poor soil fertility.
The strategy involves intercropping cereals with a repellent plant such as desmodium, and planting an attractive trap plant, such as Napier grass, as a border crop around this intercrop.
Fragrances produced by the desmodium repel (push) pests like the maize stemborer while scents produced by the grasses attract (pull) the stemborer moths and encourage them to lay eggs in the grass instead of in the maize.
Napier grass produces a gummy substance that traps the stemborer larvae so, once they hatch; only a few survive to adulthood, thus reducing their numbers.
Desmodium roots produce chemicals that stimulate germination of striga seeds, but then prevent them from attaching successfully to maize roots.
The striga eventually dies and the number of seeds in the soil is also reduced. Besides being a good ground cover, desmodium is a nitrogen-fixing legume that improves soil fertility.
Since both companion plant species are perennial, ‘push–pull’ conserves soil moisture and improves soil health and beneficial biodiversity.
The technology also provides high quality animal fodder.
Thanks to the added advantage of fodder, farmers like Agnes Ambuvi,43 who adopted push-pull in 2002 has seen her life changed. She now no longer graze three zebu cows on weeds growing along roadsides and footpaths.
Rather with her napier grass and desmodium providing quality fodder, she has four new cows that produce 15 litres of milk day each, earning about Ksh4, 000 Kenyan shillings a week.
Push-Pull provides several benefits to rural families, including reduced run-off and soil erosion, enhanced soil fertility, minimized use of agrochemicals, improved food security and increased household income.
Because of its ability to expand small-farm incomes, Push-Pull is being promoted by the public sector, private sector and farmer groups across Eastern Africa through what has come to be known as Farmer Field Schools (FFS).
The Farmer Field Schools approach to crop relies on “learning by doing” through participatory ecological field studies that are undertaken by farmers, government extension services, researchers, NGOs and community-based organizations studying together.
According to Maurice Emuria, an agricultural officer with Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, FFS is one of the extension approach but with a difference. “Unlike conventional extension, FFS aims to make a farmer an expert in his or her own farm,” he says.
First developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Indonesia, the FFS approach is being used to disseminate Push-Pull training through 51 intensive weekly sessions that cover two growing seasons.
ICIPE expanded the Push-Pull curriculum into western Kenya’s Bungoma District in March 2007.
There are now 265 farmer field schools in Bungoma County with about 8, 000 farmers being members and 18 FFS in nine other counties in western Kenya.
Boniface Masinde, 45 is a farmer from Bukembe, Bungoma County. He began as a student of FFS but is now a facilitator having excelled since joining FFS on Push-Pull.
Through FFS, he says, farmers who previously believed in merely waiting for the rain and throwing seeds, any seeds to the ground now approach farming differently. They now have kno-how on the type of crops to grow in which season, how to manage crop diseases and agro-based business are thriving in many districts in the county as early adopting farmers now have ready market for desmodium and nappier grass from newly coming in farmers and livestock keepers.
In Kisumu west, Nyanza province, Paul Nyakwako Agola, 63 from Yenga village was one luck man who in 2006 was chosen by an NGO operating in the area to icipe research station at Mbita where he received training on establishing pull-pull technology.
To his amazement, he discovered that a pilot plot, measuring 20 meters by 25 meters he had set aside for experimental purposes gave him yeilds that rivaled what he has been used to getting from an hactare.
“I was so amazed that from the (20 by 25) I could get 3 bags (90kg per bag) of maize. This is exactly what I used to get from an hactare”.
He was not the only one who got amazed, his neighbours took note and they came calling asking questions. Now Yenga village has 50 such farmers who have come together under Yenga Push-Pull farmers group who now take turn teaching and learning new farming technologies, agribusiness and others.
As a result of integriting crop and livestock farming, push-pull has opened up new business ventures for farmers like Paul.
A wheelbarrow of nappier grass and desmodium fetches farmers Ksh200 and for farmers who were used to waiting for hard to comeby support from their children scattered in many Kenyan urban centers, a wheelbarrow per day or two is more than what Paul and neighbours could have bargained for.
For example, Lorna Adhiambo Achola, a widow joined Paul’s group and set aside a 20 by 25 meter plot. Five years down the line, a woman who was left only with children and a patchy ground, now has managed to buy 5 dairy goats, a local zebu cow and is planning to buy a dairy cow from proceeds fromnappier and desmodium crops.
In light of climate change, Dr Christian says there might arise the need to modify the technology in a way that it could be suitable with varieties of cereals that would be suited to changes in the climate.
Icipe now has a target to extend the benefits of ‘push-pull’ to over one million people by 2020.
To help realize this, iCIPE Wednesday launched a project known as ADOPT – the Adaptation and Dissemination of the ‘Push-Pull’ Technology to Climate Change.
The initiative will directly benefit 50,000 smallholder cereal-livestock farmers.
It will also improve food availability for half a million people living in areas that are dry and vulnerable to climate change in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia.
Dr. Peter Sturesson, Counsellor for Rural Development at the EU Delegation to Kenya, noted: “ADOPT fully responds to the five result areas of the Commission’s Food Security Thematic Programme (FSTP), Research and Technology component, which includes: the delivery of pro-poor innovations; development of research programmes responding to beneficiaries’ needs; enhancement of the active role of low-income smallholder farmers; exchange of experience and knowledge through scientific networks; and the generation of synergy and complementarity with other EU research programmes.”
Moreover, the rising uncertainties in the region’s rain-fed agriculture, due to the continent’s vulnerability to climate change, has created more demand for ‘push-pull’, and its further adaptation to withstand the increasingly adverse and changeable conditions. The funding from the EU will take us closer to achieving these two goals.”
“ADOPT will focus on crops grown in dry areas, for instance, sorghum and millet, including research on trap and intercrops adapted to conditions associated with climate change. This requires working in partnership with national, regional and international organisations, and most importantly with farmers across the region,” added Dr Zeyaur Khan, the leader of the ‘push-pull’ programme.