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Despite being Eastern Africa’s economic power, rural poverty is rampant, especially in the semi-arid Northern regions. Only 20% of the territory is considered arable. Frequent droughts and a growing population add to the challenge of achieving greater food security for all. Improving resilience and promoting drought-tolerant crops are some of ICRISAT's research priorities in Kenya.

83% - Extent of  Kenya's territory that is arid or semi-arid

145 out of 186Kenya's Human development rank

35% - Percentage of children under five in Kenya being stunted


General context

Agriculture is the backbone of the Kenyan economy since it contributes about 25% of the GDP and employs 75% of the national workforce. Over 80% of the Kenyan population lives in rural areas and makes a living, directly or indirectly, from agriculture.

Although Kenya is one of the strongest economies in Eastern Africa, human development is low and poverty levels are high, especially in dryland rural areas. About 43.4% of the population lives on less than US$ 1.25 a day, the most vulnerable being pastoralists, the landless, and subsistence farmers, whose livelihoods depend on rainfed agriculture.

Kenya's population is growing fast, like that of most sub-Saharan African countries, from 31 million in 2000 to over 43 million in 2012, eroding any progress. Half the territory comprises of agricultural land but with its dry climate and growing desertification, only 20% is considered arable. Persistent climate shocks (droughts in 2009 and 2011) induce frequent food crises in the drylands, where herders and smallholders are too poorly equipped to be resilient. Population is much denser in high potential agricultural zones, leading to pressure on natural resources.

Many farmers cannot afford readily available, modern farming technologies such as improved seeds, fertilizers or irrigation. Less than 7% of Kenya’s cropped land is irrigated, mostly commercial estates while 83% of the territory is classified as arid or semi-arid. The profitability of climate-dependent smallholder farming is also impeded by poor institutions and infrastructure, and inefficient value chains.

Key documents on Kenya agriculture

Feed the Future Kenya factsheet 

Rural country profile for Kenya (IFAD)

ICRISAT's research for development in Kenya aims at responding to the main challenges smallholder farmers face in the semi-arid tropical regions.

Making smallholder farmers more resilient to a drier climate  In past decades, the frequency of drought has risen in Kenya. Maize, the main staple crop often fails in the drylands and farmers are being encouraged to grow more drought-tolerant crops like millets and sorghum. Farmers from Siaya county for instance now grow finger millet instead of maize, earning three times more, thanks to an early maturing variety (80 days to mature instead of 120 days). This is being disseminated under the  Bio-innovate "Delivering sorghum and finger millet innovations for improving food security and livelihoods in eastern Africa" project.

ICRISAT collaborates with private seed companies, NGOs and public research and extension institutions to disseminate improved varieties of dryland cereals and nutri-resilient legumes through community seed bank, small seed packets and other seed systems.

Community-based watershed management can reverse land degradation and boost dryland productivity as has been the case of farmers in Mwania watershed in Machakos district. Farmers have been trained in better soil and water conservation practices (check dams and tight ridges) and climate-smart agronomic practices such as tumbukiza pits to establish grass and forage trees.

By improving access to farmer-friendly climate information (eg, how climate impacts water availability for crops and risks of crop failure), farmers make more informed decisions at the farm level. But how do we scale up this approach to reach millions of farmers? With the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), ICRISAT is testing the concept of climate analogue locations to build climate adaptation strategies with farmers. Innovative media campaigns are helping spread the information to farmers.

ICRISAT research in Kenya

Market-driven development

Market demand can boost the adoption of drought-tolerant and nutritious crops like millet or pigeonpea. The HOPE project has worked with women farmers from Western Kenya to experiment with various finger millet uses to add value to this nutritious and resilient cereal.

Kenya is fully engaged in the Grow Africa initiative, promoting public-private partnerships to modernize agriculture through clusters of commercial agriculture actors. However, it is essential to ensure that this approach is inclusive and takes into account the needs of poor farmers in the drylands.  

Improving nutrition

The high protein and micronutrient content of grain legumes like pigeonpea and chickpea can improve family nutrition.

Aflatoxin is an important public health issue (see the 2004 outbreak) that also needs to be given high priority when considering health and nutrition.

Gender:  Constraints to women’s resource access - including limited access to improved inputs, extension, marketing facilities and financial services - limit their productivity. Women manage an estimated 44% of Kenya’s smallholder households and are active at every point in the food chain. Their contribution to commodities, grown mainly in home gardens, is quite significant, providing essential nutrients and often the only food available during the lean seasons or when the main harvest fails.

Strategic partnerships for scaling up:  These include close partners such as the Kenyan Agriculture Research Institute (KARI), the Association for Strengthening Agriculture Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (ASARECA) and a diversity of research and development partners.

Key documents

Pigeonpea can thrive even in drought conditions (here in Kilungu district).
An agrodealer in Nzaui district, Kenya - Promoting drought-tolerant crops through small seed packets.