Sharing knowledge to strengthen food security

Farmer Jane Kirambia knows that there is a strong link between food security and seed security

Maragwa, in Tharaka district, seems the most unlikely place to meet someone who shares titbits of information on the role conservation of indigenous crop varieties and uses it to strengthen food security of the marginalized communities in dry lands.

Yet in Manduru village in the marginalized Tharaka district, lives Mrs Jane Kirambia, a farmer known for having a variety of high quality leguminous seed crops. Tharaka district, formerly part of Meru district, has a poor road network - during the El-Nino rains, the district was cut off from the rest of the country. It has a population of 101,000 people and borders Meru National Park and River Tana to the east.

Mrs Kirambia, 33, may be mistaken for an agricultural extension officer. Her homestead, she says is usually abuzz with farmers and groups seeking advice.

I caught up with her at the 5th Maragwa annual seed fair that was held on the 10th of March. She was among the 37 exhibitors at the fair.

My attention was drawn to her by the attraction that her exhibition generated. Unlike other exhibitors at the seed fair, her stall was full with a variety of high quality traditional seed crops such as pearl millet, sorghum, maize, green grams, cowpeas, melons, pumpkins, and pigeon peas among others. It was difficult interviewing her. No sooner had I started interviewing her than more people sought after her with queries that she answered with ease to my surprise. It required the patience of a beggar to have a talk with her.

Mrs Kirambia started farming long before she got married. She was taught farming by her parents, whom she would follow to their family farm. "I was taught farming by my parents the way students are taught by their teachers," she said.

Getting her started in farming, however was not that easy. Initially she thought that farming was all foolishness, but later thought otherwise.

To be self-reliant, Mrs Kirambia, a mother of three, two girls aged nine and seven and one boy aged five, was forced to reconsider her stand regarding farming and put more effort into it. She says that she opted for farming to get a continuous food supply. "Buying food is difficult, so I wanted to farm in order to get more food that would last a whole year,'' she said.

But how does this woman farmer manage her young family and farming occupation? Fastening her eyes at the crowd that gathered by her exhibition stall, Mrs Kirambia said that she prepares food for her children and does her household chores before going to farm. Her husband is also very supportive. Mr Kirambia, a teacher at Kamwathu primary school takes the children to school as Mrs. Kirambia goes to the farm. Her eldest child is in standard three while the youngest is in nursery school.

When the household chores are demanding, she is forced to hire farm labourers to assist her on the seven acres farm. Her husband also occasionally lends a hand in the evenings and weekends.

Tharaka is a partially-dry district receiving an annual rainfall of between 500mm to 700mm. Unreliable rainfall has led to poor harvest particularly in the last harvest. This resulted in low numbers of exhibitors at this year's seed show, as many lacked seeds. But Mrs Kirambia was not affected - she fertilises her farm using cow and goat waste. And with a drip bucket kit that she was awarded for being the best during a field day, she irrigates her farm.

Farmers in Maragwa prepare their farms in September and harvest in January or February.

Maragwa seed show is organized annually around March by the Locational District Committee (LDC) with assistance from Practical Action East Africa. The show is part of Practical Action's broader Agricultural Biodiversity Conservation (ABC) project attached to the Marginal Farmers' Project in Tharaka district. It is usually accompanied by cultural shows where farmers display their seeds, indigenous foods and farming implements as well as traditional songs and dances promoting seed security and crop diversity.

The seed show provides a suitable forum for farmers to share information and exchange seeds within their localities while at the same time exposing them to a wide range of seed varieties from outside the region. It also helps in making sound advice about indigenous crop diversity from experienced community seed specialists.

Mrs Kirambia has participated in all the previous shows where she has gained valuable knowledge. From the shows, she has learnt from fellow farmers and acquired seed varieties that she did not have. An example is a variety of mkombo [sorghum] that she obtained from Peter at one of the shows. Peter is said to have obtained that variety from a place called Sagana near Tana River. Further, she has learnt how to store her seeds.

Asked other reasons as to why she was at the seed show, a smiling Mrs Kirambia said, "To win prizes and to exchange my produce for cash." At the second seed show Mrs. Kirambia was placed third, while at the third show she was second and at the fourth show she won the grand prize.

Her farming has also been recognised during the field days, winning a wheelbarrow and a drip bucket kit. This year however, Rebecca Mdaa beat her to second place during the field day assessment. "I don't know why I did not win! I am yet to see the assessors," she told me, looking disappointed.

When asked about her chances of winning this year she said, "People are telling me that I will win, but I don't know. People here are having a lot of seeds." When the winners were later named, Mrs Kirambia was among them. She was placed second behind Diego Thenge in the legume seeds category.

Meeting her after receiving her prize of a spade donated by LDC and a certificate from Practical Action, she was smiling from ear to ear: "I am very happy, I'll try very hard to get the first position next year."

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