Agroforestry Techniques that Address Poverty and Food Insecurity in Kenya

Start year


Ecosystem type


Hectares in the process of restoration so far

unknown (working with 2500 households)

Reading time

10 minutes

Measures used in this project



Africa’s land degradation conundrum: A major obstacle for smallholder farmers

Land degradation threatens the livelihoods as well as the food and nutritional security of the poorest, most vulnerable smallholder farmers and pastoralists across the globe. Examples of land degradation include erosion, soil compaction, low agricultural productivity, biodiversity loss, acidification, and loss of soil organic carbon. The causes of degradation include land clearance (e.g. deforestation), quarrying for sand, ore and minerals, overgrazing, depletion of soil nutrients through poor farming practices, spread of invasive species and lack of soil and water conservation measures.

Worldwide, more than two billion hectares of once productive land is now degraded globally, according to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification. At the same time, more than 800 million people across the world are undernourished. Strengthening the food-producing capacity of smallholder farmers and addressing land degradation, therefore, are crucial components of building resilience against hunger. Smallholder farming is a critical contributor to global food security but is under threat from degradation, loss of soil function and fertility and corresponding low agricultural yields. In dryland areas, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers with few resources require rigorous interventions to prop up locally appropriate sustainable production and reduce the risk of food insecurity while contributing to international development and landscape restoration targets. Rethinking existing farming methods is therefore central to the agricultural landscape restoration process worldwide.

Photo credit: ICRAF/ Kelvin Trautman, Kenya (2020)

Photo credit: ICRAF/ Kelvin Trautman, Kenya (2020)

A restoration solution that ensures both food security and poverty reduction

Restoration of degraded land can be a key pathway to achieving food security and reducing poverty for some of the most vulnerable people living in Africa’s drylands. Ecosystem restoration is a process that aims to restore ecosystem functions and enhance human wellbeing. Restoration options need to be tailored according to biophysical and socio-economic conditions. Key to the restoration of degraded land is sustainable soil management and locally appropriate agricultural practices that ensure the maintenance of soil and ecosystem health. In order support smallholder farmer efforts and learn more about their daily challenges, researchers from ICRAF developed a major collaborative project involving over 2500 farming households in eastern Kenya (as well as farmers and pastoralists in Niger, Mali and Ethiopia). The backbone of the project involved innovative approaches to expand farmer-centered restoration options, including agroforestry and planting basin techniques in Kitui, Makueni and Machakos counties. According to Dr. Leigh Winowiecki from ICRAF who led the five-year research in development project, which ended in March 2020:

The restoration of ecosystems needs to include agricultural systems and not just forests. At ICRAF, we are working with smallholder farmers to restore ecosystem function that includes healthy soil, improved water cycling, improved livelihoods, improved yields, crop diversification, nutrition and food security.

To fill key research gaps, scientists initiated in-depth engagement with over 500 farming households to learn how new restoration methods introduced by scientists affect livelihoods with a gender focus. As Leigh elaborated:

Instead of offering a silver bullet implemented on central demonstration plots, which has been the way of agronomic research for decades, we have engaged with farmers to implement innovative options and seen what options suit them best.

Land restoration community of practice structure. ICRAF (2020)

Land restoration community of practice structure. ICRAF (2020)

The inspiration behind the project

In terms of the motivation and inspiration behind the project, beyond solving restoration challenges in drylands, and according to Dr. Winowiecki:

Our team doesn’t conduct research for research sake. We aim to embed research into large-scale development projects to accelerate the learning and impact on the ground.

This means that the ICRAF project team aligned with a large development project funded by the Dutch Foreign Ministry and associated development partners to include this on-farm trialing of restoration options. This enabled ICRAF to bridge the research-practice gap and move towards farmer adoption. According to a quote by the project Principal Investigator: Dr Fergus Sinclair who is the Systems Theme Leader at ICRAF:

We have shown that embedding research within development opens up opportunities to answer key questions about which restoration options work best for whom, where and at what cost. This accelerates impact through co-learning with farmers - it's a major paradigm shift. A key requirement is to bring all stakeholders along the journey – farmers, research and extension staff, government and the private sector – with the challenge that they need to change their attitudes and behavior to collaborate equitably with one another.

The initiative is just one among many international restoration activities that are underway as part of efforts to meet Target 15, 'Life on Land', under the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is aimed at promoting the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and biodiversity loss. The project not only supports the SDGs, but feeds into Kenya’s aims to restore 5.1 million hectares of land by 2030 under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which fuels the Bonn Challenge, an international commitment by countries to restore 350 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2030.

Digging deeper for improved impact

For the purpose of this particular project, ICRAF scientists took a new approach by training farmers in techniques and principles, while simultaneously providing them with the agronomic tools - such as the use of planting basins, improved composting of farmyard manure, and inclusion of trees on farm - in order to innovate with methods best suited to their land and socio-economic context. As Dr. Winowiecki pointed out:

The consultative process with farmers started at the inception of the project discussing the challenges that they are facing and what questions they had about farming techniques. And it turns out that they really wanted to know about tree planting in the drylands. They had questions about how to grow different varieties of high value tree crops for nutrition as well as income. They also had questions about dryland farming practices suitable for cereal crops to reduce soil erosion and increase the soil moisture retention.

Photo caption: Dominic Omondi Kalawa grafting with Eunice Ndambuki, Kenya. Photo by ICRAF (2020)

Photo caption: Dominic Omondi Kalawa grafting with Eunice Ndambuki, Kenya. Photo by ICRAF (2020)

To further the learning, nested communities of practices were established to facilitate knowledge generation and sharing within and between stakeholder groups (farmers, development and government agencies, and research organisations). Thanks to this consultative process, the ICRAF team were able to choose, with stakeholders, three or four major themes that could be tackled in the lifetime of a project. A range of options was then provided per theme. For example, one major theme was how to increase soil water conservation and reduce erosion and so the use of planting basins were recommended which are very effective in West Africa for this very purpose. Farmers collectively decided to dig pits of varying different sizes and refill them with composted manure. Depending on their individual contexts, the farmers were then able to innovate around this model by increasing the basin size or depth or indeed the number of basins. Another theme was how to contribute to Kenya’s ambition to increase tree cover, by increasing tree survival on farms, particularly in the drylands. The project collaborated with farmers, development partners, Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), County Government, and other government entities to trial various tree planting methods including fencing, different hole sizes, different tree species, manure and mulch applications to observe which options performed best under the various conditions. ICRAF has also worked closely with the Kenyan government, and thanks to this collaboration, planting basins are now being promoted in their agriculture extension programme. Building on this national collaboration, and as Dr. Winowiecki commented:

We also have a strong collaboration with the county governments. So, we are now working directly with the county governments to develop an online hub where all the data from local restoration projects operating are displayed. The county governments are all being proactive and transparent towards restoring agricultural land. So, it's a really interesting process.

Photo credit: Farmer testimony by Eric Mulei, Kenya. ICRAF/Eric Mulei (2020)

Photo credit: Farmer testimony by Eric Mulei, Kenya. ICRAF/Eric Mulei (2020)

Overcoming obstacles

One of the main barriers here has been establishing the link between research, development, government and farmers. This means that it is important to have local engagements and local leaders and facilitators. According to Dr. Winowiecki:

I found these community facilitators to be ready to take on the challenge and to be really flexible and able to take on this task. They are champions of the project, including the process.

Another major change has been the behaviour among the research team – meaning that their work needs to go beyond data collection, whereby data isn’t just collected and analysed but is also communicated in a way which stakeholders can understand, particularly the farmers. In addition to the way the data is communicated is the timeliness of the data collection, analysis and sharing, in order for it to be incorporated into the decision-making cycle of the stakeholders. This also enables ICRAF researchers to receive feedback on their work to improve the project itself. Typically, this feedback cycle can take time, so researchers need to have a faster turnaround cycle, but also the other stakeholders need to be open to bringing this evidence into their programming.

Creating planting basins in Kenya. Photo by ICRAF (2020)

Creating planting basins in Kenya. Photo by ICRAF (2020)

Impacts so far

Many positive impacts have been experienced thanks to the execution of the project. One interesting impact to highlight is on shifting gender dynamics and decision-making powers within farm households and how restoration efforts have influenced this positively. For example, women’s participation in project training events have increased their influence over farming decisions along with their confidence in managing the farm enterprise. As reported by Mary Crossland, a PhD student from Bangor University conducting her research in collaboration with ICRAF:

Women shared stories about implementing basins, and once they were shown to be successful, the women gained more confidence and control over farming decisions, such as what to grow and where. Many reported being encouraged to try out more new practices and received additional support from their husbands and family members, such as money for hiring labour and buying seeds, and assistance with digging the basins.

Thanks to the introduction of new agroforestry and crop diversification techniques, including the introduction of planting basins, crop yields have been boosted. Through capturing run-off and helping to bridge intra-seasonal dry spells, the basins have led to yield increases of two to six times that of farmers’ usual farming practices. Given this increase in food production for the family, farmers, especially women, perceive the planting basins to be worthwhile despite being labour intensive to dig. Another major impact has been the diversification of diets (and income) thanks to the introduction of various fruit trees on their farms. For example, the increase in trees such as mango and Moringa oleifera – a drought-tolerant species with leaves rich in protein, minerals and vitamins - has led to more fruit consumption and nutritional diversity. As for biophysical changes, these interventions have reduced erosion and increased soil organic carbon, which in turn has helped to increase soil water holding capacity and infiltration rates of the soil.

Scaling up for future success

Not only has this project helped to inform active restoration on the ground but it has also helped farmers produce higher yields which has created higher self-sufficiency as well as offered the potential to sell extra crops. The techniques are considered beneficial over the long term, making farmers and the land more resilient to the impact of climate change, erosion, floods and droughts. As Dr. Winowiecki summarised:

We're not working blindly as scientists but within the decision-making cycles of farmers and NGOs and government to inform investments and to accelerate impact on the ground. Now the farmers we work with have diversified income, diversified food sources on their farms which means they have livelihood options. So if they want to stay in farming, they can. If they want to leave farming, they can.

The project is already operating in three other countries, which include Niger, Mali and Ethiopia, using the same approach applied in Kenya. The insights from these countries help to scale land restoration across the drylands in Africa. According to Dr Winowiecki:

The European Union is also scaling this type of approach throughout their projects. Putting farmers in the center of restoration and having them feel empowered to innovate is key for success.

Addressing land degradation requires active engagement of farmers to integrate restorative agricultural practices on farms. Achieving the targets set out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) therefore calls for successful restoration efforts to reach large numbers of farmers and hectares over the coming decade.

Photo by ICRAF (2020)

Photo by ICRAF (2020)

Interviewee information

Dr. Leigh Ann Winowiecki is the new Theme Leader for Land Health Decisions at World Agroforestry (ICRAF). A soil scientist, she has over 15 years of experience in the tropics addressing land restoration, sustainable agricultural intensification, and soil carbon dynamics. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Since 2009, Leigh has played a critical role in developing and implementing ICRAF’s Land Degradation Surveillance Framework in over 40 countries with a myriad of partners, including NGOs, district, county and national governments, and international organisations. The Framework is a systematic methodology to assess the health of soil and land, track changes over time, and monitor restoration.