Field Trip to TBI: an Inspiring Journey in the Far, Far North of Kenya

One hour and forty-five minutes after leaving Nairobi, the Cessna Caravan, carrying Fredrick Odhiambo and Kilian Blumenthal from the GIZ WE4F East Africa Hub, starts its descent towards a sand airstrip on the western side of Lake Turkana. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is the first chance to visit the project with the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) in Ileret, Marsabit County in Kenya.

The plane, operated by TBI and flown by chief pilot Miriam Mwende, lands next to TBI’s main research centre in Turkwell to pick up researchers before flying another 30 minutes across the beautiful Lake Turkana to its final destination: the TBI centre in Ileret. Acacia Leakey, Technical Initiatives Manager at the Institute and manager of the WE4F project, is already waiting for the guests.

The Cessna Caravan after landing on the Turkwell side

Much has happened since the partnership between TBI and WE4F began in October 2020. The solar-powered water pump and reverse osmosis system, as well as the hydroponic system are now installed; and trainings of local entrepreneurs interested in vegetable production have started. Perfect timing for a visit on the ground!

While walking together through the close by village of Ileret, Peter Baryo, TBI Community Liaison Officer, provides insights into the remote community’s challenges. Access to freshwater is very limited here; groundwater is saline and the few available sources of fresh water are far away. Nearyby, villagers are sitting in the shade of a tree, equipped with numerous water canisters. They are waiting for passing vehicles in hope of getting a lift to one of the shallow sand wells dug into dry riverbeds. Even if they provide fresh water, these wells are usually contaminated. Not to mention the potential danger from unstable wells that have been dug up to 12 ft deep, they occasionally collapse and bury people under the sand. Another threat to the community is the lack of access to nutritious food in the region from natural sources – the clinic in Ileret stocks dietary supplements donated by international organizations. The young people who are completing primary education lack job opportunities. Most live off the meagre income they derive from livestock keeping.

It is not all bleak in the village, though. The school and mission are equipped with rain gutters and water tanks to collect and store the precious rain that only falls only a few times during the year. A solar mini-grid also operates in the region, supplying electricity to some households. The school also has its own solar system on the roof; and the clinic has a solar-powered cold storage for basic vaccinations. Here and there, wind powered pumps have appeared to pump saline water for basic household activities.

A borehole provides a new solar powered water system

The TBI borehole – now completely automated and solar-powered

TBI and WE4F’s partnership and project seek to create more opportunities for the people in Ileret. A solar-powered water pump has been installed at the TBI borehole 8 km away from the institute. It  replaces the previously used diesel generator. The new water system is also fully automated – a huge advantage over the diesel generator, which required an onsite technician switch it on and off manually. The system can pump up to 4 m³ of brackish water per hour to the institute, were it feeds into the solar-powered reverse osmosis (RO) System. This RO system currently produces about 15 m³ of clean water that is used at the institute and for the hydroponic systems.

 

The solar-powered hydroponic System at TBI, transforming brackish into fresh water

With the available water and supervision from hydroponic expert Arthur Shadrack, production of fresh vegetables has started in the institute’s old greenhouses. The plants, which include lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes and much more, are growing bigger every day and look green and healthy. They are the living proof that this type of horticultural production can work in a region as dry as Marsabit. The hydroponic system helps protect the produce from environmental conditions that prevent conventional agriculture in the region. Additionally, TBI is currently setting up new, improved structures and shade nets to cater for the growing hydroponic production. Complementary to his hydroponic system work, Shadrack trains 12 local Ileret villagers on hydroponic farming and how to become a local hydroponic entrepreneur. Having never heard of the technology before, the villagers are very curious and motivated to one day start their own production. Their hydroponic production is still a way in the future since the training course started only a few weeks prior to the field visit and will take ten months to complete. In the first four months, the trainees will learn the theory and practice behind hydroponics. Using the knowledge, they will then set up their own farms with the continuous support and supervision of Shadrack.

 

Arthur Shadrack in one of his classes, teaching about hydroponic plant production

 

Hydroponic systems producing salad and spinach

 

Hydroponic system growing tomato plants

Many things have changed in the last weeks at and around the TBI centre in Ileret. Water is now being pumped and treated purely by using the energy of the sun. The diesel generators previously used are waiting silently. Twelve villagers are getting up early every day to get to the classroom of TBI, learning about hydroponics and adapting the learning on the hydroponic farm. Having never heard of the technology before, they are very curious and motivated to start their own production one day. At the same time, the plants on the farm are growing day by day – without soil and with water pumped and treated by using the sun’s energy. They are the living proof that this type of horticultural production can work in a region as dry as Marsabit.

In the last couple of weeks, so much has changed for the Ileret TBI centre. Water is now pumped and treated purely by solar energy, while the previously used diesel generators remain silent. Everyday, twelve villagers wakeup early and head to TBI’s classroom, where they learn about hydroponics and how to build their own hydroponic farm. At the same time, the plants on the farm are slowly growing each day – without soil and with water pumped and treated by using the sun’s energy.

After three long and fascinating days at the Turkana Base Institute, the Cessna is fuelled up again and takes off from the airstrip.

Watch the mini-documentary here: