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Making money from soil carbon in Western Kenya

Farmers in Western Kenya have adopted improved farming techniques and increased their resilience to climate change (© Bo Lager)
Farmers in Western Kenya have adopted improved farming techniques and increased their resilience to climate change
© Bo Lager

In early 2012, the Verified Carbon Standard* approved the very first methodology for soil carbon sequestration through the use of sustainable agricultural land management (SALM) practices. The methodology was developed by the World Bank's BioCarbon Fund to enable smallholder farmers in Western Kenya to adopt improved farming techniques, boost productivity, increase their resilience to climate change and earn carbon credits. Implemented by the NGO Vi Agroforestry in 2007, the pilot project now involves more than 60,000 smallholders farming 45,000 hectares of land in the districts of Kisumu and Kitale.

A region under pressure

Kisumu and Kitale are located in the Lake Victoria Basin, which contains an abundance of water resources. Yet the region faces considerable environmental strain from agricultural land degradation, deforested and degraded water catchments, agricultural chemicals and urban waste. Increasing populations place additional pressure on already degraded soils while extreme poverty and climate change will further compound the challenges in the region.

Until recently, farmers have had limited adaptation capacity, with little support from government agricultural extension services. Building on 25 years of assisting farmers with best management practices, Vi Agroforestry began in 2007 to test the idea that carbon finance projects could not only improve agricultural practices of farmers in very poor and degraded rural areas, but also add income from carbon credits from soil carbon.

A sustainable solution

Farmers have adopted a suite of agricultural practices known to sequester carbon (© Bo Lager)
Farmers have adopted a suite of agricultural practices known to sequester carbon
© Bo Lager

According to Bo Lager, Programme Director with Vi Agroforestry, the project "strives to maintain and restore degraded farmland into a functioning ecosystem in the landscape, which is crucial for resilience to climate change, production of ecosystem services and food security." Farmers, primarily growing maize, have adopted a suite of agricultural practices known to sequester carbon, including manure management, use of cover crops, returning composted crop residues to the fields and planting trees. In addition, Vi Agroforestry also promotes water harvesting structures, crop rotation, integrated pest and disease management, and the provision of certified seeds. The project also promotes limiting biomass burning and reducing use of inorganic fertilisers as another opportunity to earn credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Designed as a climate change mitigation project, the improvements in crop yields, soil health and water holding capacity, and overall agricultural profitability contribute substantially to the resilience of these smallholder farmers. Based on studies of SALM practices, farmers are expected to see an increase in yields by 50-100 per cent or more. In Kitale, farmers have already seen maize yield increases of 70 per cent between 2009 and 2011. Increased resistance to drought, diversified income from tree products, and reduced dependence on fertilisers and pesticides all add to the adaptive capacity of the farmers. There are also a number of social benefits, including the potential for improved community cohesion, community organisation strength, and new opportunities for women and youth, particularly in the development of tree nurseries.

Not all smooth sailing

As the first African carbon project to market credits for soil carbon on working agricultural lands and one of the first to work with poor farmers, hurdles were inevitable. One of the biggest challenges is the low price of carbon on the voluntary market for emissions offsets. At present, the amount a farmer could receive for selling carbon credits is not adequate, and the timing of payments is later than initial investment needed to transition management practices. Pre-financing support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and a commitment by the World Bank to buy credits enabled the project to move ahead. However, future agricultural carbon projects will have to grapple with this issue.

The first payments will be distributed in 2012 (© Bo Lager)
The first payments will be distributed in 2012
© Bo Lager

Monitoring posed another challenge, and was one of the initial reasons for the development of the project and methodology. In order to link actions on the farm to carbon sequestration, the World Bank developed a model, based on measurements at field sites, that equates management practices to a level of soil carbon sequestration. A sampling of participating farmers fill out an Activity Baseline and Monitoring Survey (ABMS) annually, which collects a variety of data related to those agricultural production practices, in addition to household characteristics and demographics. Payments will be made to farmer groups based on the ABMS survey results, and groups will be responsible for distributing payments to individual farmers. Building this monitoring capacity at a community level is essential for long-term sustainability of the project.

An eye to the future

The first payments will be distributed in 2012 and crediting is planned through to 2029. Bridging the financial barrier to transition practices, these payments are seen as the first step to more permanent implementation of SALM practices that ultimately result in better yields and higher income. Having completed the first phase of the project, project sustainability will depend on the successful transfer of management responsibilities away from Vi Agroforestry staff to community organisations. In order for this to occur, Vi Agroforestry is training community facilitators to provide extension activities, collect farm data required for monitoring and help to disseminate project information to individual community groups. " The experience of the project so far has been encouraging," Larger concludes, "and there is optimism about the opportunity to use the same SALM methodology in other African countries."

* The Verified Carbon Standard is a non-profit organisation that provides guidelines on quantification of greenhouse gas emissions and the issuing of credits for the voluntary market

Written by: Rachel Friedman and Seth Shames

Date published: May 2012


Have your say

Which carbon measuring model is being used for this project? (posted by: Ryan Moore)


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