Interview with Wangu Mutua, Kenya:

In Western Kenya, the slopes of Mount Elgon are home to over 2 million people and one of the main water catchments of Lake Victoria. The region’s natural ecosystem is however threatened, due to accelerated population growth, unsustainable agricultural practices, uncontrolled grazing, soil erosion among other drivers of land degradation. The smallholder farmers in Mount Elgon region are largely mixed farmers; growing crops and livestock including dairy cows for milk production. They face the challenges of poor crop yields, unsustainable milk production and poor market connection.

In 2016, the Livelihoods Carbon Fund launched an ambitious project to simultaneously tackle farmer poverty, land degradation and milk productivity in Mount Elgon region. Livelihoods upfront financing is supporting Vi Agroforestry, an NGO working in Kenya, to improve the lives of 30,000 smallholder farmers through adoption of agroforestry, sustainable agricultural land management, improved farm productivity resulting to improved incomes for better livelihood of smallholder farmers.

Deputy Regional Director of Vi Agroforestry NGO, Wangu Mutua is highly experienced in leading agroforestry projects and has a deep understanding of the poverty challenges these farmers are facing daily. How is the Livelihoods carbon investment model helping improve their lives and revenues? What are the achievements but also the challenges of implementing a high-scale carbon project that tackles both climate change and farmer poverty? The word from Wangu Mutua.

Livelihoods: What is the Livelihoods-Mount Elgon project about?

Wangu Mutua: “The project is about supporting people trying to get out of a situation where life is not at its best. The farmers of Mount Elgon region are trying to afford medication costs, school fees for their children, a decent house to live in. Farming and milk production are their main source of income and their only solution to get out of poverty.

When we met Livelihoods Fund a few years ago, we were ending the pilot phase of an agricultural carbon project, focusing on soil carbon and food production. But the innovative model of Livelihoods Fund offered us the opportunity to explore the economic impacts generated for the benefit of local smallholder farmers. Together, we focus in developing economic opportunities that help increase milk production, support dairy cooperatives that could connect smallholder farmers to the market and build fully sustainable supply chains.”

Livelihoods: How can the project link carbon offsets with improved revenues for these farmers?

Wangu Mutua: “The Livelihoods model helps couple carbon sequestration with improved food production and farm productivity. On the one hand, farmers are provided with training on sustainable land management practices, that include nutrient management, agroforestry, livestock management crop rotation. All these practices have proved to be efficient to improve the farm’s productivity. On the other hand, the adoption as these sustainable farming practices sequesters carbon while improving soil fertility, increase tree planting and enhancing cow productivity. The quantity of carbon sequestered is turned into offsets provided to the fund’s investors, to reduce their carbon footprint. We are in a win-win situation where the impact generated by the project goes beyond carbon sequestration. This model is helping us tap into resources that would otherwise be out of reach to reduce rural poverty. We are now able to provide the farmers with impactful resources to achieve a decent living and at scale: the overall target of the project is to impact positively 30,000 families and convert 35,000 hectares of agricultural land using sustainable farming practices”.

Livelihoods: To this day, what has changed for the farmers everyday lives?

Wangu Mutua: “Most farmers in Western rural Kenya have no alternative source of income than the production from their farms. They invest a lot of time and sweat to make their farms productive, but most of the time the amount of effort they put it doesn’t lead to a satisfying outcome.

What we have achieved with Livelihoods Fund support is to contribute towards ensuring that the efforts farmers put in the farm, whether in producing milk, maize, or new land practices, help them achieve increased income and improved livelihoods. Our goal is to offer support so that their dreams and aspirations are aligned with what they can earn from their farm’s production for themselves and their families. Household Road Maps and Village savings and loaning are some of the activities promoted in the project to support this.

Today, the farmers who are highly involved in the project have improved their productivity. They can now get their children to school, afford medical care, improve their cows’ health and thus increase their milk production. Emotionally, all these achievements are essential because it gives them purpose to further pursue and succeed in their everyday business.”

Livelihoods: What has been implemented to improve market connection?

Wangu Mutua: “When the farmers try to sell their milk individually, they cannot get competitive prices, because the buyers prefer huge volumes to reduce transport expenses. Bulk buyers pay the price of milk depending on its volume. We have supported 15 cooperatives to date, to help the farmers get together, sell milk collectively, increase their volumes and therefore get better prices.

The Livelihoods model helped us to partner with Brookside Dairy, which is the number one dairy player in East Africa. Together we are building a sustainable supply chain for the benefit of the farmers. Brookside Dairy has committed to purchase milk from Mount Elgon during the whole duration of the project, which is 10 years.

These cooperatives also involve more and more young farmers, as they realize they can play an active role in agriculture and earn a living from it. Collecting and transporting the milk, bringing it to the cooperative and selling it at a good price, are all contributing to creating an attractive business for them.”

Livelihoods: How is the project also contributing to preserve the water resources around Mount Elgon?

Wangu Mutua: “The Mount Elgon ecosystem is one of the most important water towers in Kenya. A lot of rivers start from Mt Elgon itself, draining into the lakes and providing water to a lot of communities. The land use around Mount Elgon is critical, because soil erosion and degradation can lead to large quantities of soil nutrients ending in the water instead of being retained on the land where they can be useful to increase soil fertility. Sustainable land practices help retain all the nutrients in the soil instead of ending in the water. This leads to reduced flooding episodes, water preservation and the protection of the downstream village inhabitants.

We have also experienced cases of soil nutrients ending in the lakes, for example Lake Victoria where it feed the notorious water hyacinth, creating more complex problems. The training provided to the farmers includes techniques to prevent the soil from ending up in the riverbanks.”

Livelihoods: What are the next challenges for the project and Vi Agroforestry in the next years?

Wangu Mutua: “In the field, we are implementing a very ambitious model, that is also quite challenging given its scale. The Livelihoods model addresses key issues on different levels: at farm level we deal with soil interaction and management, milk production, crops production; whereas in the cooperatives we deal with governance, marketing issues and milk prices. At carbon level, we have implemented a very rigorous calculation and verification methodology.

As an NGO, designing and implementing the project with Livelihoods was at a point of transition. Instead of working on our own, we are now increasing capacity so that the communities take lead in implementation. When farmers take lead, the project activities will be sustainable in the long tun beyond the project duration. This however takes time, because it involves building capacity of people and mindsets as well as complex topics such as soil management, water preservation and transition towards sustainable farming.

It is a very holistic project that is taking every stakeholder to the next level. What is satisfying is to observe everybody wanting to learn more, get out of their comfort zone and take on the challenges as they come. Every stakeholder is joining forces and helping each other to find the right solutions for impact at scale. It is challenging, in a positive way.”

Photo credits: Gérard Tordjman / Livelihoods Funds

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