Youth taking lead in community-based adaptation to climate change in Yala

By Emily Mateche

As the world reels from droughts, floods, heat waves and wildfires, the global focus is shifting towards green agricultural practices to cope with the effects of climate change. Climate-smart agriculture is emerging as one of the sustainable farming alternatives. And farming, long regarded as a preserve of the middle-aged and elderly, is gaining popularity among youth as a livelihood option for communities residing adjacent to Yala Swamp, Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland.

In Siaya County, two youth groups supported by Nature Kenya – under the AfriEvolve project – are charting the path towards sustainable farming through climate-smart agriculture and other nature-based livelihood activities.

At Kanyibok village, near the shores of Lake Victoria, lies a green vegetable farm belonging to the 30-member Kanyibok Youth Group. Black nightshade (managu), amaranth (terere), collard greens (sukuma wiki) and other vegetables cover the approximately 0.2-acre plot, which also serves as a climate-smart agriculture demonstration farm.

“Our farm is small but the harvest is good. Climate-smart agriculture has enabled us to transform our small piece of land into a productive vegetable growing area using minimal resources,” says Lilian Akatcha, a member of the group.


The youth group’s climate-smart venture has seen them secure tenders to supply vegetables to secondary schools in the area. In addition to schools, the group also supplies their produce to markets nearby.

Through the demonstration farm, the group is educating local farmers on various farming techniques such as application of organic manure, soil and water conservation measures, crop rotation and growing high-value, fast-maturing and drought-resistant crops. To reduce dependence on rain for farming, the group has installed a solar-powered irrigation kit.

“Using irrigation, we are able to grow vegetables all year round. This means we can supply these vegetables even during the dry season,” adds Lilian.

To stay updated and informed, the youth farmers have embraced mobile technology. Using mobile apps, they can get area-specific weather information and advisories from the County Directorate of Meteorology and expert advice from the County Department of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. This information helps them make sound farming decisions like what crops to plant, when to plant, when to harvest, when to stock and how best to control pests and diseases. The use of mobile phone technology is proving useful not only for accessing information but also for marketing and sharing experiences through community social media forums.

In Yimbo, one of the driest regions in Siaya County, another group – Wambasa Youth Group – is also changing the fortunes of local youth through climate-smart agriculture and beekeeping. Group members grow vegetables and cereals on their farms. The group also has an apiary with over 200 hives.

“We hardly look for a market for our honey. Our honey is sold out by the time we harvest,” says Robert Ouko, a group member.

Apart from crop farming and beekeeping, the youth group is also into fish farming and chicken rearing.

This new crop of youthful farmers is a source of inspiration to local communities in Siaya who have, in the past few years, seen their farming fortunes dwindle due to the adverse effects of climate change. With climate-smart agriculture, communities are now better prepared to deal with the uncertainties of climate variability.

The wetlands of Kenya

The early morning’s sun rays gleam against the shiny mangrove leaves along the shores of Sabaki River Mouth, where the Athi-Galana- Sabaki River pours into the Indian Ocean. For nature lovers, Sabaki River Mouth is a haven of biodiversity. But for private developers who have lately been eyeing this ecologically sensitive area, it is a vast wasteland. 

On February 2, we mark World Wetlands Day, a day to appreciate the importance of wetlands and advocate for their conservation. Many wetlands in Kenya, including the Sabaki River Mouth, face increasing pressure from human activity. The majority of wetlands lack formal protection, except for the few that fall in protected areas. With the current lack of institutional management and formal protection, these wetlands are at the mercy of developers and potential loss of these delicate ecosystems and the invaluable ecological services they provide. 

Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems on earth. They filter water, store carbon, regulate floods and control soil erosion. They provide water, food, pasture and raw materials for people and their livestock. From the Yala Swamp in western Kenya to Lake Ol’ Bolossat in Central Kenya and the seasonal wetlands of Dakatcha Woodlands in Kilifi, these habitats host many bird, fish, mammal, plant, reptile, amphibian, crustacean and insect species – some of them found nowhere else. 

Encroachment, land use change, pollution and habitat destruction top the list of threats wetlands in Kenya face. The fact that many of these wetlands lie on private land further complicates their conservation. A lack of awareness of their importance has seen the conversion of wetlands on private land to farmlands and real estate developments. Those on community land have not been spared from destruction. Wetlands, especially seasonal wetlands, are not usually recognized in land allocation, and are not set aside for community use or conservation. 

Yala Swamp is Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland. The swamp directly supports many communities with water, fish, firewood and raw materials. Yala Swamp also plays a critical ecological role in filtering water flowing into Lake Victoria. Currently, Yala Swamp is facing imminent destruction following a decision by the National Land Commission (NLC) to allocate 6,763.74 ha of the wetland to Lake Agro Kenya Limited for commercial farming. Local communities and conservation stakeholders have voiced outrage over the controversial allocation by NLC. 

The recently documented fish deaths in Lake Victoria were attributed to pollution. Communities around the lake depend on fishing for livelihoods. Chemical and fertilizer load from farmlands and reduced acreage of papyrus to filters these chemicals, has enhanced the spread of the invasive water hyacinth, negatively impacting fishing. 

In Lake Nakuru, unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation and uncontrolled abstraction of water in the catchment, and pollution and encroachment by human settlements from the city, threaten the wetland’s fragile ecosystem – once known as the greatest ornithological spectacle on Earth. 

All is not gloom, though. Nature Kenya is working with local communities, county governments and other stakeholders to conserve wetlands in the country. At the Tana River Delta, a land use plan was collaboratively developed to guide the management of land and natural resources for

various uses, including conservation. Nature Kenya is promoting the Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas (ICCAs) approach at the Delta. The ICCAs are biodiversity-rich conservancies based on traditional, cultural, and multiple land use under the management of local communities. 

A land use plan for Yala Delta (which includes the Swamp) has also been developed. The land use plan seeks to put the use, development, management and conservation of Yala Swamp on a sustainable footing.

Nature Kenya works with local conservation groups that serve as Site Support Groups (SSGs) for Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), which include wetlands. The community groups are engaged in site restoration, monitoring, advocacy, environmental education and awareness creation, and promotion of sustainable livelihood activities. The SSGs are active in Yala Swamp, Tana River Delta, Lake Bogoria, Lake Naivasha, Lake Ol’ Bolossat, Mida Creek, Lake Elmenteita, Sabaki River Mouth and Dunga Swamp.

Government recognition of water, biodiversity and tourism as valid land uses would go a long way in saving these critical resources.


Help us save Yala Swamp, say local communities

Along the Kombo dyke that separates Lake Kanyaboli and the vast Yala Swamp in Misori, Siaya County, clumps of papyrus reeds dance to the gentle morning wind. Fishermen in traditional wooden canoes paddle through the calm lake waters, occasionally making stops to inspect their traps. Pied Kingfishers lay in wait to catch some fish. Many other birds, including Papyrus and Black-headed Gonoleks, forage through the papyrus. The place is a birder’s paradise. Local communities use papyrus reeds from the wetland to make baskets, mats and other products.

“As a weaver, my life revolves around Yala Swamp. It is here that I get the raw materials for my weaving. Together with other weavers, we make and sell products to sustain our livelihoods,” Mildred Apiyo, a resident of Bunyala says.

All this, however, hangs in the balance as Yala Swamp, the country’s largest freshwater wetland, faces another major treat: the conversion of the swamp to a sugarcane plantation.

 “It is like everyone wants a piece of the swamp land. Private developers are scrambling for it. Communities who have lived here long have a right over it. The scramble for this resource is not anything that can be ignored,” Ibrahim Ogolla says.

For now, local communities are not so much concerned by the rampant fires to reclaim the edges of the swamp. The controversial allocation of 6,763.74 ha (16,713.57 acres) of the wetland by the National Land Commission (NLC) to a private investor – Lake Agro Kenya Ltd – is what has them worried.

“The move by the National Land Commission goes against our land rights. We depend on Yala Swamp for food, water, pasture, fuelwood and medicinal herbs. Sadly, our voices seem not to count,” says Ayiro Lwala, chairman of Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group (YESSG).

Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group is a community umbrella body working with Nature Kenya to conserve the Yala Swamp.  The group also promotes sustainable livelihood initiatives to ease overdependence on the wetland for sustenance. Climate-smart agriculture, fish and poultry farming, beekeeping, basket weaving and ecotourism are some of the income-generating activities YESSG is promoting with Nature Kenya’s assistance.

“We are working closely with Nature Kenya to reduce pressure on Yala Swamp for natural resources by supporting nature-based enterprises. The decision by NLC to allocate large portions of the swamp to a private investor undermines our conservation efforts. The focus should be on protecting the swamp, not destroying it,” says Edwin Onyango, a member of YESSG based in Bunyala, Busia County.

To the local communities, the conversion of the swamp to a sugarcane plantation will put many of their livelihoods at risk, compromise their subsistence food production systems, and expose them to abject poverty.

Yala Swamp is one of Kenya’s important wetland ecosystems. The swamp is internationally recognized as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). It provides numerous essential environmental services and vital resources for over 250,000 people who live around it.

Besides being home to the endangered Sitatunga antelope and many papyrus-dependent birds, Yala Swamp is a refuge for cichlid fish that have become extinct in Lake Victoria.

YESSG and many other community organizations object to the Yala Swamp allocation by NLC and are asking the government to stop it.

“Yala communities will not accept to be impoverished at the expense of some rich greedy people. We will continue to fight for Yala Swamp’s conservation for the benefit of everyone,” concludes Thomas Achando, chairman of the Yala Swamp Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas.

Promoting climate-smart agriculture in Yala Swamp

Agriculture is the source of livelihood for thousands of communities in Kenya, and food for us all. Unfortunately, climate change effects such as reduced or unpredictable rainfall and prolonged drought spells have had devastating effects on crop production. Many rural communities bear the brunt of these negative impacts, often being left vulnerable with little or no food.

To help communities better cope with current and future climate variability, Nature Kenya is promoting the adoptionof climate-smart agriculture in Yala Swamp. Under the AfriEvolve Project, local communities are being facilitated to acquire necessary skills and inputs to be more resilient to climate change effects on farming.

Through the project, supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and NABU (BirdLife partner in Germany), 150 farmers have been identified and supported to sustainably grow high-value climate-resilient vegetables and cereals under rain-fed agriculture. The vegetable and cereal types grown are fast maturing, require little rainfall and produce better yields than current crops. These farmers have received seeds and on-site technical support.

The project is also supporting agroforestry. Four community-based tree nursery groups were supported with equipment and seeds to produce tree seedlings for shade, fodder, firewood and fruit. Over 100,000 tree seedlings have been produced. Out of this, 51,000 tree seedlings are ready for planting to restore degraded riparian areas along River Yala and to establish woodlots. Twelve other community tree nurseries have been identified for agroforestry support. Kenya Forest Service (KFS) provides technical support for tree seedlings production.

Fish and poultry farming and beekeeping are the other nature-based enterprises promoted by Nature Kenya in Yala under this project. Three community-run fish ponds have been stocked with 3,000 tilapia fingerlings, with 30 fish farmers being trained on the basics of climate-smart fish production, formulation of quality feeds, packaging, storage and marketing technologies.

A poultry unit has been established and stocked with 200 improved indigenous chicken chicks, feeds and related equipment. Establishment of a second unit is underway. Communities have also been supplied with 100 modern beehives, honey harvesting gear and a processing unit.

The project lays emphasis on the transfer of knowledge and skills. Groups of crop farmers, fish farmers, poultry farmers and beekeepers have undergone training as ‘trainer of trainers’ (ToTs). Some of the things they have learned include bookeeping, value addition, packaging and marketing.

Yala Swamp is one of Kenya’s important ecosystems. The swamp is the largest inland freshwater wetland complex in the country, sheltering a great variety of birds, fish and mammals, including some threatened ones. Yala Swamp provides useful environmental services like filtering out harmful pollutants from water flowing into Lake Victoria. The swamp is also a source of livelihoods for many communities.