KIVAA, Kenya, Oct 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Peter Mutisya cuts through a yellowing grass field with a machete at his farm in Kivaa village, southern Kenya, laying knee-high blades of grass into a neat pile.
“I have made 300 Kenyan shillings ($3) by selling these today,” he said, a large smile spread across his face.
Mutisya was not always so cheerful. He used to grow maize and beans, but irregular and insufficient rainfall meant he harvested very little – five bags of maize at most per season, which earned him 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($96) at the market.
“After paying school fees and hospital bills I would be left with nothing, forced to rely on the village chief’s charity to feed my family,” explained the father of three.
Worsening drought and erratic rainfall across Kenya have affected harvests and livestock, prompting farmers to look for alternative sources of income.
A growing number of Kenyans living in arid areas are swapping staple crops for livestock fodder like Rhodes or Brachiaria grass, which require less water to grow, according to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.
Joseph Mureithi, director of the organisation, said that “rain-fed staple farming is becoming increasingly difficult in Kenya due to poor rainfall, whereas growing fodder can help farmers withstand prolonged drought.”
For two years Mutisya has been growing Rhodes grass to supplement his income.
“It requires less work than maize, and brings more money,” Mutisya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, shoving a few bank notes in his pocket.
It takes him three hours to plant the grass and, unlike maize, does not need regular weeding and treatment for pests, he said.
He sells grass bales to herders for 200 Kenyan shillings ($2) each, and makes up to 200,000 Kenyan shillings ($1,930) per season.
Wild grass like Brachiaria is drought-resistant, nutritious and reduces the need for fertilisers, says the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.
Mutisya said the growing demand for fodder from herders in times of drought is what makes it such an attractive proposition for subsistence farmers like him.
“Pastoralists are realising that in dry weather it is better to buy fodder for their livestock instead of walking long distances in search of pastures, and risk their animals dying along the way,” he explained.
Paul Melita, an elder from Sonorua village in a neighbouring county, said his village is experiencing one of its worst droughts in years.
“It’s simple: when there is no rain there is no fodder. Our livestock die,” he said, pointing to the village path littered with rotting animal carcasses.
He is not as worried as others, however. Late last year he went to Machakos, a nearby town, to buy grain for his family. “But I got more than that,” he said.
Farmers were selling hay bales at the open-air market – which came as a surprise as he had never seen fodder sold before.
Melita now buys about 60 hay bales every month, which he says allow him to keep his livestock fed and alive, even in dry weather.
He has had to manage his budget carefully, however. “If I sell one cow, I can raise enough money to buy fodder to feed my other 20 cows for a month,” he said.
But most herders refuse to sell their stock, said Joseph Nkanoni, a project officer at Dupoto-e-Maa. The herders’ group has been encouraging people to sell some of their animals during drought, to buy fodder or pay for family food or school fees.
“Pastoralists see ownership of livestock as enhancing a man’s status in society,” he said. “So they are reluctant to give their animals up.”
Trading manure for fodder is another option for herders who would rather not part from their animals, say experts.
“Pastoralists rely on fodder grown by farmers. But farmers too need products like manure from pastoralists to farm grass,” said Joseph Ngondi, coordinator at the Climate Change Network of Kenya, a network of organisations tackling climate change.
"So everyone wins." ($1 = 103.6000 Kenyan shillings) (Reporting by Kagondu Njagi, Editing by Zoe Tabary and Alex Whiting. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)