Bringing back paradise

reports and interviews

Bringing back paradise

Severe droughts and agricultural mismanagement have taken their toll on Makueni County, Kenya. The rivers dried up and livestock died. Landscapes and gardens became bare and arid. The soil was impoverished, as were the farmers. Benedetta Mwongeli Kyengo wants to change this by cultivating and teaching the techniques of syntropic food forestry.




SkillEd: Benedetta, in 2020 you planted a 5-acre food forest in Kwa Miui Village, in Makueni County. What was your motivation?


Benedetta: I grew up in the slums of Nairobi, but my grandma owned a piece of land in Makueni County. As a child, I used to visit her as often as possible during the vacations and I still remember that her garden was very lush and felt like paradise.


A wide variety of vegetables, nuts, and fruit trees grew there, including mango, bananas, papaya and passion fruit.


During my studies, I stayed in the city for a while though. And when I returned to my grandma’s land in 2015, it had changed. The trees had been cut down, the soil was bare, and nothing was growing.




SkillEd: What had happened?


Benedetta: My grandmother listened to the agricultural consultants who in the 1990s started advising everyone to switch to a monoculture of maize and beans. Farmers were promised that these so-called advanced farming methods would mean less work and higher yields.




SkillEd: But that didn’t work out.


Benedetta: Not at all. Makueni County has always been a semi-arid area and due to climate change, droughts have become even more frequent and severe. However, maize and beans need to be watered regularly and a lot.


Apart from the water problem, farmers have had to buy expensive hybrid seeds and more and more artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The soil became infertile and my grandmother, like many others of the so-called “maize and bean generation”, lost her food security and financial independence.


The new monocultural farming methods not only led to increasingly barren landscapes and poverty but also changed eating habits for the worse.


People were used to a much more varied and therefore more nutritious and healthier diet of indigenous, drought-resistant fruits and vegetables such as cassava, yams, sorghum millet and indigenous mango and papaya varieties.


Today, many of these foods have been largely forgotten and replaced by a maize-and-bean diet.




SkillEd: In the meantime, has the government stopped recommending the cultivation of maize and bean monocultures?


Benedetta: Surprisingly, it has not. The last approach was to allow genetically modified maize plants that are more resistant to drought and pests. This was met with lots of protests though, in Kenya there is a genuine fear of GMOs. Nevertheless, many farmers are finding it difficult to switch to cultivation methods that are better suited to the region. They are trapped in a bad cycle: Even after five or six failed seasons, they continue to sow maize and beans. I realized that talking wouldn’t convince them, but a demonstration farm showing alternatives might. That’s how the idea of “Feedback to the Future” was born. We bought a piece of land, to turn it into a living lab and training centre.




SkillEd: What kind of farming methods do you use?


Benedetta: We apply regenerative agriculture and plant syntropic agroforestry systems. Syntropic agroforestry involves creating diverse and mutually beneficial plant communities that mimic natural ecosystems, resulting in increased biodiversity, improved soil health and enhanced productivity. An important component is the tree nursery, which makes the farmer independent of buying expensive plants and can also be an additional source of income.


Our first year was very difficult, but after two seasons, we had quite a satisfactory harvest. We made some changes and were able to harvest even more and more different crops.


Other farmers from the village saw the positive results and became interested. We started training them. To date, we have trained 250 farmers in 15 villages.


On average each course participant owns three acres of land. And we are observing a spillover effect. Every farmer who successfully implements a syntropic agroforestry system inspires people in her or his village and family to do the same. Our long-term goal is to expand the project to different regions in Kenya and perhaps even to other countries in Africa.




SkillEd: How does the training work?


Benedetta: We use blended learning programs. This means that we offer both face-to-face training in class and online training via SkillEd. Farmers can access the training material in the app even without the internet and share it via Bluetooth. This is very helpful if someone can’t attend the face-to-face training, wants to repeat a lesson, or wants to share the training material with other people in her/his community.




SkillEd: What is your biggest challenge at the moment?


Benedetta: Water shortage. Syntropic agroforestry requires much less water than maize and bean monocultures, but still, we need water. For now, we use shared boreholes and prepare to collect as much rain as possible when it falls. Meteorologists expect a very wet El Niño season at the end of 2023.


In the long term, agroforestry has the power to improve the local climate. The transpiration of the plants contributes to the formation of rain clouds, which release the water back onto the land.


Another advantage of our farming approach is that healthy soil with lots of biomass allows water to penetrate the ground. Thereby a food forest can work as a water reservoir and at the same time prevent flooding and erosion.


I hope that one day the rivers in Makueni County will be full of water again and that we will succeed in transforming this degraded area into a thriving environment. It won’t be easy, but with the spirit we see in the farmers, I just know, it will happen.