Saturday, 15 July 2006

The Need to Formally Assess Bio-Intensive Agriculture Practices and their Impact on Kenyan Smallholder Agriculture.

Beth A. Medvecky, Cornell Univ, Ithaca, NY 14850

Bio-Intensive Agriculture (BIA) has been widely promoted by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Kenya as a means of helping resource poor small-scale farmers solve their food security and soil fertility problems. However, despite the fact that thousands of Kenyan farmers have been trained in BIA over the past 20 years, BIA practices have not been adequately tested under local conditions nor has there been any rigorous evaluation of BIA adoption and impacts. BIA has been introduced to Kenyan farmers as a technological package that includes double-digging of permanent growing beds, fertilization of the beds with compost, and close spacing of plants using diagonal offset spacing. Double digging is a highly labor intensive soil preparation technique that involves loosening the soil to a depth of two feet. It was originally developed in the UK to ameliorate drainage problems in compacted soils. Yet, deep, well-drained soils are of widespread occurrence throughout Kenya and results of preliminary experiments undertaken to evaluate the impact of double digging on vegetable yields showed no yield benefits on well-drained Oxisols in Trans Nzoia district. In addition, promoting such a highly labor constraining practice as an integral part of the BIA package could preclude farmers from adopting the other, potentially more useful BIA components (i.e. compost use and close spacing of plants), which showed evidence of helping to increase per unit area vegetable yields in growing beds that received only surface cultivation. Although anecdotal evidence abounds, facts concerning BIA's role in increasing Kenyan smallholder farmers' food security, nutrition and income are sorely lacking. BIA, as promoted by NGOs in Kenya, focuses on vegetable production. Yet, for the most part, Kenyan farmers' food security currently depends on their ability to produce (or purchase) adequate amounts of maize and beans. The time is ripe to make a concerted effort to conduct well-planned, scientifically sound trials on BIA practices under different agroecological conditions in Kenya, as well as to undertake a formal assessment of adoption among the thousands of farmers who have received BIA training. This will be useful for fine tuning BIA recommendations for local conditions, and ultimately increase BIA's potential to positively impact smallholder farmers' lives.

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