In Summary
  • Continuous use of DAP has been blamed for pumping phosphorous into the soil while ignoring other elements such as potassium and zinc.
  • To rectify the situation, scientists called for massive liming to neutralise the acidity and create better conditions for crops to grow.

Most of Kenya’s soils are sick and cannot sustain any meaningful agriculture, a new study has found.

A study commissioned by the Nation Media Group and which covered 11 counties, paints a sorry picture of the status of our soil, with the situation worsened by inaction from both levels of government.

This means that millions of farmers — most of whom have no other source of livelihood — till their land in vain.

The investigation, which covered Trans Nzoia, Bungoma, Uasin Gishu, Bomet, Nyamira, Narok, Kisii, Makueni, Kirinyaga and Nyeri — some of Kenya’s most important food baskets — found the soils too acidic, a condition that blocks nutrients from getting into the crops.

And while fertiliser has often been used to enrich the soil, Kenya’s farmers have little respite as most of the inputs only serve to increase acidity.

TOXIC FERTILISER

The report, which comes five years after President Uhuru Kenyatta launched a national survey and called for urgent rehabilitation of soils, is a damning indictment of the national and county governments.

Scientists in the project carried out in 2014 had proposed a number of remedies, including switching from Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) fertiliser to Nitrogen Phosphorous Potassium (NPK) and embarking on a national liming programme to reduce acidity.

Continuous use of DAP has been blamed for pumping phosphorous into the soil while ignoring other elements such as potassium and zinc.

However, five years down the line, little has been done even as production dips, posing a major food security challenge for the growing population and hurting an economy that depends largely on agriculture.

The Nation team that visited farms in the 11 counties came face to face with a sorry sight, with some of the mature maize crops reaching knee height instead of the regular height of at least two metres, for the hybrid variety, projecting little harvest from those regions.

LOW YIELD

The report comes on the back of an admission by the Government two weeks ago that farmers will this year harvest only 33 million bags of maize, compared with 44 million last year.

The 25 per cent drop also falls far short of the 52 million bags the government had targeted for this year’s harvest expected from next month.

Kenyan farmers reap a third of what their counterparts in China get and a fifth of the average yield in the US.

This variation has largely been attributed to the condition of the soil, with experts estimating that Kenyan farmers lose up to Sh30 billion annually due to depleted soils.

The 2014 analysis of soils in Kenya showed that the acidity levels in most farms were way higher than the recommended level because of continuous use of inorganic fertiliser, in particular DAP.

LIMING

The survey by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), which was carried out in 164 locations, recommended the types of fertilisers to be used in each sub-county, depending on the soil status.

But there was no follow-up to ensure implementation. Instead, the government, through its fertiliser subsidy, indiscriminately dispenses DAP without any regard to a farmer’s soil condition.

To rectify the situation, scientists called for massive liming to neutralise the acidity and create better conditions for crops to grow.

But many farmers cannot afford it. A tonne of lime goes for Sh4,000, way beyond the reach of small-scale holders, who form the bulk of Kenyan farmers.

Lime is also cumbersome, requiring several tonnes over the years for its effects to be seen.

Farmers who spoke to the Nation said they would be willing to lime their farms if they got support from the government. “We have been told that lime can help us to increase our yields, but our pockets do not permit,” said Mr John Bosire, a farmer in Nyamira, whose soil was found to be highly acidic.

The problem of deteriorating soil fertility has been compounded by the fact that most farmers do not know the status of their soil.

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