Principal helps village feed itself

Amid drought, a Kenyan schoolmaster's farming lessons break cycle of aid dependency.

While 1 in 10 Kenyans face starvation as drought sweeps across East Africa, a rural principal is keeping his pupils off aid handouts by turning his school into a self-sufficient food producer.

Joseph Mbindyo runs a high school deep in the bush 80 miles east of Nairobi. For three years, until recently, no significant rain fell on the baked earth in the surrounding villages of Katangi district.

But with the introduction of a series of simple but innovative farming techniques, Mr. Mbindyo has succeeded in making his school an example of how this corner of Africa could feed itself despite drought, and lessen its perennial reliance on outside help.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) recently appealed for $426 million from international donors to help feed 11 million Africans on the brink of famine due to severe droughts in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti.

Despite the onset of some rains earlier this month, the crisis is far from over as aid convoys are now stalled by washed-away roads. Those affected have been so weakened that aid agencies and governments with limited capacity must step in to help, once again.

Not, however, at Father Makewa High School in Makutano, which was built three years ago by the local community with government funds and contributions from church congregations.

"Things have not been easy through this time of drought," says Mbindyo, a married father of three daughters aged 14, 12, and nine. "But with our work and God's grace, we have not been so hungry that we have needed to ask other people, outside people, to help us."

Mbindyo learned the agricultural techniques he has put in place here from his farmer father, and from a postgraduate degree in agriculture at the University of Nairobi.

When he first took over the school in September 2004, he began with a scheme to harvest the most precious commodity of all - water.

With the help of parents, four long trenches were dug, stretching through 26 acres of derelict land around the school. Lined with plastic sheeting, these became "water pans" that hold water used for irrigation during dry seasons.

With this method, Mbindyo is able to coax four extra months of the growing season each year, effectively allowing for a double harvest.

And he is shrewd about what he grows, avoiding common crops like maize or beans, which are low value and need lots of land. Instead, tomatoes, watermelons, cabbages, eggplants, capsicums, and French beans sprout thickly from the muddy earth, and will be sold later to bring in cash to buy the staple foods for his pupils' lunchtime meal.

Where maize sells for seven cents (US) a kilo, watermelons - sold by the parents who helped grow them - can fetch 10 times that in the local markets. The cabbages, capsicums and beans fetch a similar premium.

Mbindyo hopes to be earning $15,000 in revenue by this time next year, when seeds planted now turn into harvestable crops. In 2005, the first year his initial schemes bore fruit, he says he earned $2,700.

All of that money goes back into the fields, he says, buying seeds, and investing in a borehole to tap into ground-water reserves. His local MP, Charles Kilonzo, has used constituency cash to help dig the borehole, but they are short of the $1,500 needed for a pump.

Meanwhile, the 270 schoolchildren ages 11 to 18 learn new techniques that they take home to their families' farms.

They are taught to plant rows of bushy sesbania shrubs in with maize crops. These drought-tolerant plants have deep roots which lock nutrients into the soil. They provide shade, which prevents the sun from baking the ground solid, and their leaf-fall turns into vital organic fertilizer and fodder for livestock.

The students learn to line water trenches with plastic to stop water seeping into the dry earth, and to dig the channels deeper than they are wide to limit evaporation.

They are told to use tree branches for firewood, and leave the trunk in the ground, to at least slow deforestation rates. They learn how to nurture seedlings, which they take home to their families or sell.

"I have tried to teach my father some of these things, especially planting the trees in with his maize, and he is doing it and starting to see the benefits," says Petronilla Mulu, an eloquent senior at the high school.

"What I am learning here has made me very interested in studying agriculture at university so that I can learn more and more ways to bring more food for Kenyans."

Louis Verchot, senior scientist in Nairobi for the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), commends individuals working wonders like Mbindyo, but cautions it is not so simple to copy his ideas wholesale.

"Bear in mind [Mbindyo's] may be niche technology, successful because he has spare land, good soil, and extra manpower," Mr. Verchot says.

"What is needed to widen these successes is for African governments to focus their investments again on agriculture, because good nutrition makes you healthy, fights poverty, and means kids are ready to learn in school.

"And the international community needs to address wider issues like subsidies back home, which mean African farmers never have a level playing field to work on."

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