Mr Caleb Odondi Omollo (Center) leads other conservationists in a tour at his vetiver farm in Kamagambo, Migori County. PHOTO: IAN BYRON, KTMN

For decades, farmers from sub Saharan Africa have been grappling with soil degradation occasioned by erosion and poor farming practices.

This has not only lowered the cost of production but has also seen a reduction in food reserves, pushing majority of farmers at the brink of starvation.

But in Western Kenya, the narrative is now a tale of the past, owing  to the introduction of vetiver grass, a game changer in climate change mitigation.

The grass, according to conservationists, is the antidote to soils erosion as it has the ability to hold run offs across sloppy valleys during rainy seasons.

“There are huge swathes of lands in parts of Western Kenya that are lying fallow yet they have been used for agriculture for many decades. What used to be  productive in the yester years can no longer sustain farming owing to erosion,” says environmentalist Caleb Odondi  Omollo as he walks along his vast vetiver farm in his rural village of Kamagambo, Migori County.

The grass, he says  is used as a seasoned ingredient in fragrances in developed countries but to him, vetiver  is fast becoming an ally for farmers reeling from the impulse of climate change.

Mr Caleb, a permaculture enthusiast notes that the introduction of the tropical grass will  “no doubt reclaim the gulleys that had been swept off by erosion.”

The regular tropical rainfall and the fertile volcanic soil  in the area have made his village to be surrounded by lush green hills an agricultural paradise.

Mr Caleb Odondi Omollo at his vast Vetiver grass farm. PHOTO: IAN BYRON,KTMN

“We used to grow food crops here; sugarcane, coffee and bananas  were thriving well with coffee becoming the most important cash crop in our village. This has however changed overtime and what remains is a pale shadow of the bumper harvest we had,” he says as he makes his way downstream into his vetiver farm.

But like many other agricultural regions, this fertile villages are being threatened by climate change.

The area’s rugged geography makes it particularly vulnerable to extreme events such as prolonged dry periods and at times long rains that have brought a complete shift in the climate.

These further undermine the soil, which already suffers from erosion, as with most of the land downstream.

Mr Caleb stops abruptly by the farm and kneels down. He points at a dense network of light-brown roots, similar to a ball of wool, crowned by long, narrow, light-green grassy leaves, with a rough surface and a longitudinal notch: Chrysopogon zizanioides commonly known as vetiver.

“We planted vetiver here just a year ago,” he says. “And the roots are already 2 meters [6 feet] deep!” It grows so fast and its roots have helped reclaim this vast land.

According to him, vetiver could actually be a nature-based power tool against climate change: an elaborate system for mitigating erosion, sequestering carbon dioxide, cleansing overfertilized soils, and improving their natural fertility.

“Its origin dates back to India where it was cultivated during the colonial period mainly for use in the perfume industry. Essential oils in its roots form the earthy foundation of many fragrances, although we are unable to process it’s value chain owing to limited resources,” he asserts.

He first heard about the grass in 2005 at an agro-ecology workshop at a permaculture center in Veracruz.

 “Through google search, I found Vetiver network then contacted them and they linked me to a farmer in Voi who supplied me with the grass,” he said.

 He took 10,000 slips and planted them on his  half an care farm which had been badly affected by erosion then planted some more on terraces downstream — and  the results was astonishing.

“The erosion gradually stopped, the trees sprouted behind the barrier, and the leafcutter ants didn’t like the vetiver either and migrated,” he says.

From continuous research and studies, he realized that vetiver grass if regularly trimmed creates organic material that further enriches the soil. The grass is also a biological means of cleaning up soil and water contaminated by heavy metals.

“It is highly effective in creating biomass and absorbing carbon dioxide.”

Since then, he has been fully engrossed in sensitizing locals on the benefit of the grass and often conducts sensitization schemes to absorb more farmers in the venture.

Mr Caleb Odondi training farmers on the benefits of Vetiver grass during a meeting in Rongo town. PHOTO:IAN BYRON,KTMN

He started to offer it to clients from Migori, Kisii and Homa Bay counties and has now spread across Kenya not only as a climate change advocate but also a vetiver champion, a move that is fast changing the fortunes of most farmers.

Mr Mwadime Kombo, a local farmer asserts that the grass is of mutual benefit as farmers can make income from the sale of the grass which doubles as animal feed.

“We have made a good fortune out of this grass. I often sell is as animal feed and dairy farmers are fast embracing it instead of the usual nappier grass ,” said Mwadime.

Mwadime also said that plantation of the grass has also enabled them to conserve soil, making the landscape regain its shape.

After he planted vetiver in the dug-up soil and put trees behind were they able to grow, the runoffs have been contained and the soil fertility has been regained.

He’s also planted vetiver on a hill to help fix his banana plantation, and says he’s content.

“Vetiver is a great plant that helps the other plants grow,” says the 40-year-old, who has also used vetiver to reduce erosion along the slippery clay trails on his property.

Farmers assert that a combination of vetiver barriers and a redesign of planting and infrastructure patterns help to prevent water erosion during heavy rainfalls, common in the region.

Mr Obuche Ogao, at his vetiver farm in Kodero Bara, Migori County. Most farmers have embraced the grass to prevent erosion and address climate change effects. PHOTO IAN BYRON:KTMN

The use of vetiver as a nature-based solution for climate change-related problems isn’t limited to agriculture.

Caleb  points out that the grass can also be useful for building public infrastructure, thatching homes or for preventing natural disasters such as landslides in neighborhoods.

Sadly, he says, Vetiver still isn’t widely used or studied here in Kenya.

Mr Odondi has already made several attempts to get scientists on board, but the COVID-19 pandemic, funding cuts for research by the current government, and a complex bureaucracy have so far frustrated his attempts.

Despite its overall merits, he sees vetiver as the ultimate solution.

“For me, vetiver is a very good first step in a transition toward more complex ecological farming systems,” he says, referring to permaculture and agroforestry.

He strongly believes the ecological farming systems of  employed in the past should be revitalized, because “they contribute to healthier and more resilient food systems.”

But transition isn’t easy. Reconverting a conventional farm into more sustainable agriculture takes several years and a completely new mindset.

“For many farmers, vetiver could be the first step into this new world of agriculture,” he asserts.

 

By IAN BYRON

Managing Editor, Writer and Political Affairs Enthusiast

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *