When Rahel Mathayo was growing up in rural northern Tanzania, her Maasai family got everything it needed from raising livestock and herding them to graze in different areas.
Once she grew old enough to marry, she and her husband maintained the tradition of herding livestock. Then, as so many other Maasai families were doing, they began cultivating land to grow corn instead.
Both provided enough for a good life. “I was a happy mother. There was always enough of everything,” remembers Mathayo.
But as rainfall has become more erratic and soil more depleted, those days of plenty are in the past.
Northern Tanzania’s two rainy seasons — long rains from April to June and shorter rains from November to December — used to come at intervals so regular that farmers knew exactly when to plant.
In recent years, both the timing and amount of rain have become unreliable, meaning some farmers put crops in the ground too early and some too late. The soil has been damaged by erosion and overgrazing. When rain does come, instead of nourishing crops, it often runs off or evaporates.
As a result, Mathayo, now 66 and grandmother to 23 grandchildren, sees families struggle to grow enough food to last until the next harvest season and earn enough money to cover school fees and medical costs.
“Life is hard,” she says.
But hope for her and her family is coming through MCC-supported efforts to spread the techniques of conservation agriculture, a holistic system of farming in harmony with nature in order to improve the soil and reduce hunger and poverty.
Last May, for the first time ever, Mathayo’s son, Simon Kutingala, and his wife, Monica Simon, grew their own kale, yams, indigenous leafy vegetables and tomatoes — a harvest that helped feed the couple, their six children ages 1 to 19 and Mathayo. (In Tanzania, many women use their husband’s first name as their last name.)
A newly constructed, plastic-lined rainwater collection and storage trench made gardening possible in this dry land. It’s the most recent conservation agriculture practice that the family is testing on its 5.5-acre farm in the the village of Ekenywa in the Arusha district of northern Tanzania.
“I like new knowledge and ideas,” says Kutingala, 45. “When I hear about new things, I’m willing to try it.”
Kutingala began practicing conservation agriculture in 2006 and is now a motivator and trainer for MCC-supported efforts in his village of about 700 farming families.
The three pillars of conservation agriculture are simple — but dramatically different from the usual practice of tilling or plowing soil before planting. Instead, soil is left as undisturbed as possible. Bare soil is covered with a cover crop or a mulch of organic materials and crops are rotated.
Participants in MCC-supported trainings learn other conservation practices such as thinning crops and building contours to prevent soil erosion. They are encouraged to plant fruit trees and vegetable gardens, to harvest rainwater to help offset dry conditions, to compost, to vaccinate poultry and to use the power of the sun to dehydrate and preserve food.
The idea of conservation agriculture is to increase the organic matter in the soil, helping crop yields and income increase.
Kutingala first saw the change in yields for maize or corn, the staple crop that Maasai families began relying on once they no longer migrated with their animals.
Before using conservation agriculture techniques, Kutingala recalls, he would harvest four bags of maize, each holding 100 kilograms, per acre. When he started with conservation agriculture, his land produced eight bags per acre. In 2012, production climbed to 13 bags an acre.
The additional income has enabled the family to build a new house, lease more land, buy farm equipment and build structures to harvest rainwater for household use and for the garden. He hopes additional projects such as the vegetable garden will keep improving their lives.
MCC, through its account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, is contributing $1.2 million toward a three-year project in Tanzania with a partner organization, Global Service Corps, that provides trainings and works with local farmers such as Kutingala who promote conservation agriculture in their own communities.
Maasai and other indigenous people, women’s groups and people affected by HIV and AIDS are among those selected for training.
This is one of more than a dozen conservation agriculture projects that MCC supports around the world.
Most projects respond to increasingly unreliable rainfall, says Dan Wiens, coordinator of MCC’s food security and livelihoods programs. “The word ‘conservation’ in conservation agriculture means conserving soil and moisture,” says Wiens. “All the practices are adaptations to lower amounts of rainfall that many farmers are experiencing.”
In the city of Arusha, MCC worker Simeon DiGennaro of Lenox, Mo., works with the Global Service Corps appropriate technology team to develop new sustainable farming methods and demonstrate the success of these methods.
“I see the conservation agriculture training as crucial to help farmers improve yields and adapt to changing weather patterns,” says DiGennaro. “Farmers who are adopting conservation practices are seeing increased yields.”
For Richard Kipara and his wife Rose Richard, the change that conservation agriculture brought to the 12 acres they farm in the village of Ekenywa was so dramatic that some neighbors said they must be using witchcraft.
But then in 2009, during a prolonged drought, they were the only farmers to get a crop. Neighbors’ suspicions melted away.
“Those who said I was using witchcraft now realize it was not,” says Kipara. “They are learning from me.”
Kipara, who now trains area farmers in principles of conservation agriculture, also is a leader in showing how other conservation practices can increase farmers’ productivity.
A few years ago he dug a drainage trench to divert water from a nearby road into his field, a move that improved the road and brought him more water. Last year, he planted banana trees on the edge of the trench, taking advantage of the water in the soil.
He built contour banks on sloping land to reduce water erosion. The elephant grass that he planted to help maintain the banks also provides additional feed for his livestock.
And the improvements have changed life for the couple, who have five children ages 2 to 20.
“We now have food for the family and for the livestock,” says Rose Richard. They can support their children’s school fees. They were able to build a new home and have money and food to share with others. “I ask God to give me more so that I can give more to people in need,” Kipara says.
Their neighbor, Elizabeth Daudi, shares their hopes. Before participating in MCC-supported training, Elizabeth and her husband Daudi Loiminaa could not grow enough food to last until the next harvest, so she and her family were often hungry. In 2011, through gains from conservation agriculture, they were able, for the first time, to grow enough maize to sell some. They are now intercropping, adding legumes between rows of maize.
Like Mathayo, she remembers when life was not so hard — when there were trees, the soil was fertile and crops could more easily grow. Today, in addition to farming the family’s land, she weeds for others, and her husband works as a watchman. She worries as she looks at the future that rains will continue to diminish.
But like Mathayo, Daudi places her hope in the principles of conservation agriculture — in the gains she’s seen so far and in those she believes will come.
“If I can work hard — and with God’s help I can — I hope conservation agriculture will change my life,” she says.