Central Kenya's Nturukuma region is not kind to farmers – its erratic rainfall, desert vegetation, and drying riverbeds push most people into making a living through trade rather than agriculture.
Jane Kairuthi Kathurima toiled for years as an animal herder in the semi-arid conditions of Laikipia County, but struggled to feed her family – until she discovered sack farming, which has transformed her life and those of her children.
“Being in an environment where food was scarce and lacking in nutrition, I had to find an alternative way to survive,” said Kathurima, who is HIV-positive. "If I sat doing nothing I would die, so I had no choice but to embrace farming in whatever manner I could.”
Sack farming involves filling a series of bags with soil, manure, and pebbles for drainage, and growing plants on the top and in holes in the sides. The sacks allow people to grow food in places with limited access to arable land and water.
Two years after setting up her sack farm, Kathurima now grows enough vegetables – including spinach, lettuce, beets, and arugula – to feed her family and sell the surplus to the community.
By bucking tradition and learning a new way to cultivate crops in Nturukuma's harsh conditions, she has become a successful, well-respected farmer. Now she is supporting other food-insecure farmers by encouraging them to think differently.
The group behind sack farming in Kenya is GROOTS (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood), a global network of women-led groups which help women solve problems in their communities by changing the way they do things.
Rahab Ngima Githaiga, vice chairman of one of the GROOTS member organizations, says sack farming has empowered women and changed lives by improving family nutrition and enabling children to go to school.
After Kathurima joined Likii Home Base Care, a group that supports people with life-threatening illnesses, she received training in becoming financially secure and eating well. She was also introduced to a variety of farming methods.
She was attracted to the idea of sack farming because she found it easy to put into practice. “The method only required a small amount of space, and I considered my quarter of an acre more than sufficient," she said.
The scarcity of water in the region also led Kathurima to find a way of collecting and storing the precious commodity.
She covers the grass roof of her home with a polythene sheet to catch rainwater and directs it to a nearby tank. She recycles laundry water to use on her plants, adding ash to purify the soapy water.
The sack method allows a freer flow of water to the roots and retains moisture more efficiently than traditional methods, meaning sack farmers can keep their plants hydrated with less water.
Kathurima's sack garden has turned into a thriving venture, providing her family with nutritious local vegetables and a steady income.
“Sack farming has saved me a great deal, as money that would have been used on food I can now save to educate my three children,” she said.
Kathurima advises other farmers in Nturukuma on methods that suit the local climate and help combat the effects of climate change.
For example, instead of the more common technique of planting seeds in shallow holes, she tells farmers to use their pangas – a type of machete – to dig deep, wide holes for sowing and then cover them with mulch.
The mulch allows water to soak slowly into the ground and keeps the soil cool to reduce moisture loss, giving the plants a better chance of surviving dry spells.
Kathurima has now expanded her farm, growing fruit as well as vegetables, and added poultry and rabbits. Her plot has grown into a small, lush oasis, an achievement she uses to persuade other farmers to adapt to the local climate rather than fight it.
“Today I am an empowered woman who managed to create her own form of employment," said Kathurima. "And I am urging other women to embrace the same type of thinking to work towards a food-secure nation."
Women like Kathurima have inspired others and made sack farming increasingly popular elsewhere in the country, encouraging women to use limited resources effectively, feed their families, and earn a living.
David Mugambi, a climate change officer working with the Grassroots Development Initiative Foundation Kenya, says sack farming improves food security for households with small parcels of land.
“The technique uses very little water, and one can use recycled water, making it economical,” he said.
The method has created employment and generated income for both rural and urban dwellers, and has proved to be a good way for farmers to adapt to the effects of climate change, he added.
• Reporting by Caroline Wambui; editing by Jumana Farouky, Tim Pearce, and Megan Rowling.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.