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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Water hyacinth: a blessing in disguise to Sipili farmers.

By Dennis Kipkirui.

 Water hyacinth is known to be an invasive weed choking the aquatic life in Lake Victoria, the main source of River Nile; Africa’s longest river. Residents of the lake region have learnt to hate the weed and curse the day it sprouted in their economic hub. Researchers have been left scratching their heads after their skills to rid off the weed were thwarted. They tried mechanical, chemical and biological means to remove it but to their chagrin. International organizations including the IMF have pumped billions of shillings to eradicate it fearing the danger it poses on the livelihoods of over 30 million people surviving on the lake.
This is not the case for the residents of Sipili Division, Laikipia West District. In the quite village of Dimcom, farming is a thriving economic activity, thanks to water hyacinth. Residents are busy cultivating the weed not oblivious of the worries it has exerted to the world. They only know the benefits.

Mr. Kiarahu harvesting water hyacinth from his dam.
 One of the chief beneficiaries of this dreaded plant is Mr. Francis Kiarahu. He traces the day he discovered its usefulness to 1981 when he settled in Sipili area. On arriving to this marginal part of the country near the equator line, he realized that water was a scarce resource and remembers the day he could walk for 20km to fetch water. He then began an epic journey of water exploration by digging his own dam. It bore fruit. Today his dam measuring 19 feet in depth, 36 feet long and 25 feet wide is full of water. The water is enough for domestic use as well as for livestock all year round. He also irrigates his ever-green farm in this parched side of the country. His mission was not only to find spring water but also to have a place to trap running water during rainy seasons.

With the presence of water in his farm, the successful farmer thought that he had completely solved water problems. However, that was not to be the case, evaporation took toll of his dam and depleted water. “I had to think seriously of a way out to permanently solve my problem,” said Kiarahu. “One day when I was running my errands in Nyahururu town I saw a plant that covered water in a pond. I inquired about the plant and everybody said that it was harmful to a water body.” 

When he came home, he deeply  thought over it .He could not resist the temptation of introducing the hyacinth  into his receding dam to provide the same ‘cover’ over water like the one in Nyahururu.
As fate would have it, The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) began a bore-hole digging project in the area to alleviate water crisis for the residents. Mr. Kiarahu met one of the NCCK officers and requested if he could avail him a sucker of hyacinth in his next visit. That was the start of water conservation in his farm. He got the sucker, planted it in his dam and it quickly spread over water. The rate of water loss through evaporation was reduced. 

Mr. Francis Kiarahu feeding goats with water hyacinth
The farmer was not through with his discoveries until he realized the economic value of the ‘weed’ apart from conserving water in his dam. Two years after planting it, he harvested a little of it and introduced it to his livestock to feed on. That was it. The animals readily welcomed the new feed and became more productive. When the Laikipia Rural Voices visited his farm, both goats and cattle were comfortably feeding on it. He also makes manure out of it which he uses as fertilizer in his green farm. Apart from manure, Mr.Kiarahu employs water hyacinth as mulch in his fruit trees during dry spells to prevent water loss. 

He is quick to remind LRV that it also acts as a water purifier. The survival of fish in his dam is attributed to the hyacinth which protects it from predators.

He harvests it using a hook and rake. Does it need any form of management? Not at all.
His effort to conserve soil and water were recognized in 2010 when he was feted by the ministry of agriculture as the best farmer in Laikipia District for Soil and water Conservation. He was awarded a certificate which he proudly shows the LRV scribe. 

Many farmers have emulated his work.  Currently most residents in the area are farming water hyacinth. As the world struggles to eliminate it, to them it is a blessing in disguise. They are planning to have it in large scale for commercial use. They are looking forward to a day they will start a cottage industry to make products like packets out of it. To them Lake Victoria shall be the main source of their raw materials.

The only challenge they attribute to the plant is its ability to destroy fish life during drought season and difficulty in harvesting because its roots are entangled in soil rather than water.

Mr.Kiarahu plans to sensitize more farmers in the larger arid lands of Laikipia County on the economic viability of hyacinth. “I have a campaign aimed at imparting knowledge on the people of Sipili and the wider Laikipia on how to utilize water hyacinth. It is a good plant and can help farmers from this region who need constant supply of water to manage their activities,” said Mr. Kiarahu.
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