HIV-positive farmers reap health benefits from Kenya's arid north

by Isaiah Esipisu | @Andebes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 October 2010 15:45 GMT

p>LODWAR, Kenya (AlertNet) Â? A group of people living with HIV/AIDS in northwest Kenya are defying the region's tough climatic conditions to farm nutritious food crops that are helping them stay healthy.

Because Turkana district receives little rain, arable farming has never been a priority in this part of the East African country. Most inhabitants keep livestock, moving from one area to another in search of pasture.

But the Ngiturkana Self Help Group, which is made up of 89 HIV-positive men and women, has adopted a different approach, managing to grow vegetables against the odds in a semi-arid region beset by increasingly frequent droughts.

"We settled for farming because of two major reasons. One, being HIV-positive means we are weaker, thus we cannot afford the nomadic lifestyle which involves trekking for several kilometres in a day," explains Agnes Naole, the group's chairwoman. "Two, we desperately need the nutrients if we are to live longer."

The group was set up as a support network four years ago by five people living with HIV/AIDS in Lodwar township, who attended clinics at the local district hospital. The Turkana region has an HIV prevalence rate of around 7 percent, according to hospital statistics.

The United Nations says food insecurity and poor nutrition can hasten the progression of AIDS-related illnesses, while the HIV virus reduces people's capacity to work to provide food for themselves and their families.

Taking the drugs on an empty stomach can produce severe side effects, often discouraging patients from continuing their treatment. Meanwhile, studies have shown that proper nutrition enhances the effectiveness of antiretroviral therapy (ART), prolonging the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The Kenyan group's members - whose numbers have quickly swelled - began by growing vegetables on individual plots, as most fresh vegetables and fruit sold in the area are transported from Kitale town, over 500 km away, making them unaffordable especially for the poorest.

The farmers were able to expand their efforts three years ago when Practical Action, a development charity that specialises in technology, bought them five hectares of land near the Turkwel River.

The Ngiturkana group cultivates amaranth, cowpeas, pumpkins, drought-resistant beans, sweet potatoes, cassava, tomatoes and any other food crop that can withstand the region's challenging climate.

One member says his count of CD4 cells - which are responsible for fighting off disease but are destroyed by the HIV virus - has increased from 250 to 925 in the past two years, thanks to better nutrition.

SOLAR-POWERED PUMP

But growing fresh produce is no mean feat in one of Kenya's poorest and most marginalised regions, which has the country's lowest literacy levels.

Rains can be as scarce as once in every three to five years, making it difficult for anybody to venture into horticultural activities. In extreme drought situations, local people have traditionally depended on wild fruits and roots for survival.

When the group first started farming, members sank shallow wells in the bed of the seasonal Turkwel River, from which they fetched water for manual irrigation.

Three years after the project was launched, however, the government and humanitarian organisations have provided tools that are making their work easier. A Kenyan government scheme to manage resources in the country's arid lands donated a water pump powered by a generator.

Development charity World Vision has provided huge plastic tanks for water storage. And the Christian Missionary Fellowship, a local NGO, has given the farmers a solar panel which they plan to use for pumping water - a cheaper and greener alternative to their diesel generator.

The pump system allows them to access underground water, which is stored in an overhead tank and fed into a drip irrigation system.

"This helps the group to harvest enough produce for their domestic consumption. We are yet to begin producing enough for commercial purposes," says coordinator Jackson Lokwatom, a member of the Turkana community.

His peers are finding it increasingly harder to make a living from keeping animals. During droughts, they have to trek for longer distances in search of greener pasture. Some have abandoned cattle in favour of livestock that are better able to withstand drier conditions like donkeys, camels and goats.

SWAPPING ANIMALS FOR VEGETABLES?

They might do well to follow the example of the Ngiturkana Self Help Group. Sarah Ayeri, a research scientist at the Kenya-based Centre for Training and Integrated Research in Arid and Semi Arid Lands Development (CETRAD), believes arable farming could help struggling pastoralists cope with the impacts of drought.

"Think of desert countries like Israel, which never see any rains for years yet produce lots of horticultural crops for their country and even for export," she says. "This can happen in any other country, but only if there is political commitment to support these initiatives fully."

With the Turkana region expected to receive even less rainfall in the future, Ayeri urges scientists and policy makers to explore economic, social and ecological mechanisms that will enable local communities to adapt to climate change.

In the past ten years alone, Turkana has experienced two droughts that decimated herds. At one point, local people became so desperate the government resorted to purchasing some of their starving animals, mostly for burial.

The chairwoman of the Ngiturkana group, meanwhile, says Turkana's worsening climatic conditions will not deter her HIV-positive colleagues from growing vegetables.

"We have no choice. With or without rains, farming must go on," Naole says. "We desperately need the nutritional value from these foods."

Isaiah Esipisu is a science writer based in Nairobi.

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