"We call them the maize and beans generation."
Bena (Benedetta) Kyengo
Feedback to the Future
They’re known as the ‘maize and beans generation’, the generation of Bena’s grandparents. Her grandma was a prime example. Unable to resist the temptations of agro-industry, she succumbed to its promises of higher yields.
Bena grew up in the slums of Nairobi and visited the plot of land owned by her grandma as often as she could. The land had been in the family for generations and in keeping with tradition a range of crops was grown there, including vegetables and many fruit trees such as mango, banana, pomegranate, papaya and passion fruit, as well as nuts and coffee. Bena spent all her holidays there, climbing in the trees, eating the fruit and enjoying the meals prepared by her grandmother. Staying there on the farm was part of her childhood, but because of the distractions of life in the city and the demands of secondary school, there was a period when she stayed away.
In 2015, when she visited her grandma for the first time in years, it broke her heart. Nothing was left of the lush plot; the trees had been felled and the soil was bare and arid. Her grandmother had succumbed to the temptations of the agricultural consultants who advised her to switch to a monoculture of maize and beans, holding out the prospect of higher yields and less work.
After studying in Nairobi, Bena left for Utrecht, where she took a Master of Science in Geospatial Technologies, majoring in Sustainable Business and Innovations. In Utrecht she also met her husband and had a child.
She wanted to return to Kenya, ‘to do something for the community with women like her grandma’. She investigated all forms of agriculture, including regenerative farming in Australia, forestry projects and syntropic agroforestry, in which she saw the solution for the many small farming families, especially women like her grandmother who had switched to maize and beans and ‘improved methods of farming’.
Climate change made it all the more urgent to convert to a form of syntropic forestry, adjusted to suit the conditions in Kenya.
But the land proved unsuitable for these ‘improved methods of farming’. More and more artificial fertilizers and pesticides were required, and every year much of the income went on expensive hybrid seeds and other inputs. The soil became impoverished, as did grandma, and eventually she became financially dependent on Bena’s mother in the slums of Nairobi.
This example is illustrative of the fate of an entire generation of small farming families who were encouraged by the government and put under pressure by the agro-industry to switch to ‘improved methods of farming’, which were seen at the time as a route to advancement.
Bena realized that she could not convince the community with a good story alone. She wanted a piece of land in the area close to her grandmother, where conditions are harsh, partly as a result of climate change. Her dream was to have a farm of her own, managed according to the principles of syntropic forestry.
It would be a living lab, a demonstration farm and training centre, and the idea of giving feedback to the future was born. With the help of third parties, she acquired a piece of land in Kwa Miui Village, in Makueni county.
The first year was disastrous. The land produced hardly anything at all, but they were able to build up biomass to regenerate the soil. Two seasons later they were already able to harvest crops, and by making changes, including to the system of planting, a continual yield of various products was achieved. Now, two years later, 170 women have been trained and motivated to use the same methods to regenerate their land.
"It was great to have one day when people could forget their daily struggles, dance them out and share meals and drinks."
This group of women and men, who followed the lengthy training together, are seen here practicing for a performance to mark the start of the annual cultural festival. It’s a day on which the farmers and their families gather to share locally produced and indigenous food, music, stories and dance, in the midst of drought and hunger.
"We have trained 170 farmers, and on average each farmer owns three acres. It’s realistic to expect that all these small farmers between them are transforming almost 600 acres."
On the day that we visit Bena’s farm, the sky is full of dark clouds but rain refuses to fall. It hasn’t rained for the past four seasons and the entire region is dry as dust. That’s why the planting of trees is so important, Bena argues. We teach the farmers that they must plant trees again. Trees produce fruit and hold on to water.
Muringa, macadamia, mangos, avocados, pomegranates, papayas, lemons, guavas, leucaena, sesbania, loquat, passion fruit, soursop, African kigelia, custard apple, Java plum, oranges, castor oil trees – they all used to grow here.
Water is the biggest problem. Bena wants to overcome the drought and provide access to water by seeking funding for the drilling of wells. They need to be drilled deeper and deeper, however, because the level of the ground water is sinking.
It looks almost pathetic: a little tree that needs to be kept on a drip to stay alive. But it will be big one day! With a bottle of water per month, this little tree can be raised to maturity, which is precisely what we teach the farmers when they start their own nurseries. If you intend to bring up trees to such a size, you’ll care for them as if they’re your children.
Bena describes the problems the farmers face. As well as drought, they are still tackling the consequences of the ‘improved methods of farming’. All the trees have been felled and the soil exhausted by monoculture. Farmers are forbidden to use their own seeds at the risk of arrest; using your own seeds is regarded as illegal! As a result, farmers get into major problems and become dependent on the ‘GMO Structure’, if they can pay for it at all.
It means that famers find themselves in deep poverty. They work so hard and get so little for what they produce. ‘But we are going to transform,’ Bena says combatively as we end our conversation.
At the end of the afternoon the sky darkens even further and looks threatening, but threatening skies do not necessarily mean rain. For a moment it looks as if the women with their traditional dancing have brought an end to the drought, but when we get in touch with Bena three days later she tells us that not a drop fell.
In the area where we are staying, less than thirty kilometres from her farm, it’s been raining non-stop for three days by then.
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