Herders swap livestock for chilies as drought hit

Kenya: Herders swap livestock for chilies as drought hits hard 

It’s mid-August and, at this time of year, Richard Longiro and his wife Cherop are usually busy looking for grazing for their livestock. But their three cows died during a drought this spring. They sold their 20 sheep, fearing they would meet the same fate.

Mr. and Mrs. Longiro farm and raise their three children in Kangorio village, in western Kenya’s West Pokot County. Mr. Longiro says, “We had two options: either take [our livestock] to the market and sell them at a throwaway price, or keep them, which was risky because they were most likely going to die.”

Over the past year, herders in Kenya’s Rift Valley have lost thousands of animals to worsening drought and erratic rainfall. More and more herders are switching to growing crops to supplement their income.

Mrs. Longiro and her husband now plant chilies—a crop resistant to drought—on a quarter-acre of their land. They also grow pawpaw, mangoes, and bananas. She explains, “Livestock had become so vulnerable to dry weather that we decided to start a new activity.”

Giuseppe De Bac is the project manager in West Pokot County for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO. He says chilies are a safe crop for farmers in droughts as they do not require fertilizers or water once the roots develop.

Mr. De Bac adds, “[Chili] needs water in the early stages of growth, so we encourage farmers to plant on drip-irrigated plots.”

FAO supplies water storage tanks and drip irrigation kits to farmers involved in the project. It also helped negotiate a three-year agreement for 200 farmers—many of whom have lost livestock—to sell chilies to an Italian company at a fixed price of 200 Kenyan shillings ($1.90 US) per kilogram. The company, called La Fattoria, has a processing plant in southeast Kenya.

According to Mr. De Bac, a quarter-acre plot can contain 2,500 chili plants. Each plant yields up to 1.5 kilograms of chilies over three years if well-tended. Mr. De Bac adds, “That could get farmers as much as 250,000 shillings ($2,380 US) per year, compared to only 7,500 shillings ($71 US) when the farmers grow maize.”
Glenda Andiema is a marketing executive at La Fattoria. She says that if the project succeeds, her company may renew the contract with the farmers at the end of the three-year period.

Ms. Andiema says that extension officers visit the farmers to ensure they follow recommended agricultural practices, because her company may refuse to buy the chilies if they are of insufficient quality or quantity.

Some farmers have already delivered their first crop of chilies to drying centres and will receive their first payment in September.

Pamela Chepkorir is one of the chili farmers. She says, “This is an exciting moment for us, because for the first time we are growing a crop which we know we will sell, to whom, and for how much.”