What water means for one farmer, once a migrant now a returnee, in Kenya

Paul at his farm. ©FAO/Luis Tato

Water. For all people, it means health, hygiene and hydration. For the spiritual, it can mean a connection with creation, community or oneself. For farmers, it means food and income. For Paul, a 33-year-old man from Kiambu county in Kenya, water has meant a new reason to stay in his country.

Paul had never considered a career in agriculture. Growing up in a rural area, he had seen his parents work on their farm for years with little to show for their efforts. It looked like a punishment, he said, an opinion shared by a majority of youth in Kenya. Working in agriculture is considered a last resort, a job with long hours and little monetary benefit. Paul had dreams of moving to the city and starting his own business.

After graduating with a diploma in Information Technology, Paul moved to Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi to start a new business in this sector. But with high competition in the industry and lack of funds, he struggled to get his business off the ground. Eventually accepting defeat, he moved back home.

However, Paul remained convinced that he needed to migrate to succeed. He believed that a better future was only possible in big cities or in other countries. Paul started exploring avenues to move to Canada.

“I wanted to fly away. We have a mindset that certain countries are better than ours, and we think that if we go to those countries, we can make it big,” Paul said, echoing the thoughts of many young people in rural areas.

Through using innovative farming methods, Paul is now a respected farmer in his area and even trains other young people. ©FAO/Luis Tato

But a new way of using water changed his mind and made him reconsider agriculture as a career.

Paul was introduced to drip irrigation systems and other agricultural practices by an FAO project in his area that sought to build capacity of rural youth, making agriculture into a business and not just a survival mechanism.

Paul learned how to use the right fertilisers, natural pest control methods, water harvesting methods and essential business skills, including value chain analysis and market research. And most importantly, he learned how to make efficient use of a precious resource: water.

After one year of training and field tours sponsored by FAO, Paul took the leap and started his own agri-business on a one-acre piece of land given by his father, with FAO providing agricultural inputs and assets as a seed investment. This included the drip irrigation system that had been revolutionary.

Drip irrigation is a controlled irrigation method that works by exposing plant roots to a direct supply of water, releasing drops in a slow and steady fashion. This system allows him to produce indigenous vegetables like the spider plant, mallow, nightshade and amaranth, even in the dry season when he can sell them at higher prices to neighbours or at local markets.

According to Paul, it is this kind of technology that will encourage rural youth to stay and modernise the agricultural sector instead of migrating. Young Kenyans are tech-savvy, and access to modern technology, like the irrigation system used by Paul, proves that agriculture can be a viable and profitable business.

“The reason agriculture is not attracting youth is low adoption of technology. If technology is brought into agriculture, it will boost yields and income,” Paul says. “Rainfed agriculture – yes, it is easy – but due to peak seasons most of the produce goes to waste. But with technology like drip irrigation system, I can produce in dry seasons when the prices are good.”

He is now a respected farmer in his area and even trains other young people interested in learning about these practices. Paul has employed another young person to support him on the farm and to help him meet the growing demand for fresh produce. Paul now has plans to increase his products’ value by drying and packaging them to reduce waste and increase shelf life.

Paul is just one of over 1 000 youth partaking in this project, ‘Addressing the adverse drivers of migration through local value chain development.’ The project aims to address the root causes of rural youth migration by generating employment and entrepreneurship opportunities in agri-business. In close collaboration with the local government, FAO mobilised youth in the area and helped build capacity for improving agricultural production.

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