Sustainable agriculture driven by local volunteers:
Rehabilitation of the banks of the Thugi River

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Region East Africa
Capital Nairobi
Surface area 580,367 km2
Population 35,106,000 inhab.
Population density 60 inhab./km2
Infant mortality rate (per thousand births) 68
Fertility rate (births per woman) 5.0
Population growth rate (per annum) 2.2 %
Life expectancy (female-male) 46 – 48 years
Average temperatures (min./max.) 12.0 / 23.4 ºC
Forest area 30 %


Desertification presents a major obstacle to development. One of the causes of desertification is poor land use. In Kenya, the objectives of the School and Dropout Services’ project are to raise awareness among the community and to use natural resources in a sustainable way so as to maximize production of small agricultural tracts.

The rehabilitation project of the Thugi riverbanks in the Kandara Division began in 1981. It was conducted with local volunteers on a self-help basis. Its projected goals were to educate the population on proper land use techniques and tree planting to combat land degradation. The local community was also encouraged to use alternative energy sources and to render agricultural production more efficient while developing other income generating activities. Controls for measuring land erosion and water conservation were also established (picture 1.).

The Thugi River

Muruka is a densely populated region situated in the southern part of Kenya, intersected by the Thugi River (See map). Over 54,000 inhabitants live in the area covering 13 km2 mainly from the Gikuyu ethnic group. In general, women and children occupy and tend the land.
Thirty-five years ago, the region was covered with bushes and natural forests where many wild fruits were available.

More than twenty years ago, Muruka benefited from abundant rains, and planting was rotated twice a year during the long rain and short rain seasons. Millet, sorghum, yams, bananas, cowpeas and other crops grew easily. Today, the area has become very dry. Most of the crops have disappeared with the exception of corn, beans and potatoes, and even these do not grow well.

1. A vegetable plantation in Kenya.
© Alexis Vorontzoff UNESCO

badCauses and effects of land degradation

As a result of uncontrolled exploitation of the forest, overgrazing and agricultural malpractice, the land has become barren and suffers from serious erosion.
The furrows along the length of the river were communally used for seasonal crops such as bananas, arrowroot and sugar cane. However, now the banks of the river are very dry and the soil lacks fertility. Vegetation cover is scarce in the areas surrounding the river, the superficial top layer of soil is washed away by the rains and succumbs to erosion right up to the embankments.

Land degradation is observed among the majority of land plots. The majority of inhabitants of the region are small farmers who have been using the same agricultural methods for generations. The land has been over-exploited for many years by practices that include foraging for cattle fodder and firewood. Vegetation cover can no longer develop and animals generally trample on the edge of the paths. The area of a typical plot of land is small, starting at 1,200 m2 up to 1.5 hectares for a family of 5 to 10 individuals (one hectare is equal to 10,000 m2).

With coffee plantations taking up most of the land, the small portions remaining are mainly used for subsistence farming and the majority of local farmers use chemical fertilizers. (Natural fertilizers such as compost are often preferred to chemical fertlizers. Also, the overuse of chemical fertilizers can have negative effects on the land however, only the specific characteristics of each area as well as the production method practised can truly determine whether the use of fertilizer, and its concentration, is advantageous).
For the past twenty years, the rains have not been very reliable. The prevailing dry periods have created food supply problems.
The rains have been unfavourable to basic crops such as corn, potatoes and beans and food insecurity has resulted. Many local farmers are obliged to buy food to meet the needs of their family because the soil has become completely sterile.

Poverty is growing and the majority of households survive on a day-to-day basis through their work in the nearby coffee plantations, with much of the work performed by children whose schooling is interrupted before the end of primary school education.
From the 1920s up until around the 1970s, every household possessed food granaries or pantries containing provisions covering periods of difficulty. Following each harvest, the local farmers stored corn, beans or pumpkin in reserve and every household possessed a specially devised container to ripen bananas. Today these granaries have disappeared or they are used for storing tools and other family household objects.

2. Tomato crops in Kenya.
© Alexis Vorontzoff UNESCO

goodPossible solutions

Women perform most of the domestic chores such as gathering wood for fuel, rearing livestock, fetching water, cooking and cleaning as well as raising the children.
Also, many other agricultural tasks are assigned to women, from overseeing ploughing to harvesting and drying fruit. Women are entirely dependent on their land and spend most of their life tending it. They place all their hopes in this land. However, the income earned from this work belongs to the man of the household.

With this in mind and faced with the difficulties confronted by women, the members of the association School and Dropout Services organized a public awareness seminar to combat desertification and encourage sustainable development targeted at women. The idea of rehabilitating the Thugi riverbanks was hatched during discussions on the difficulties faced by women when fetching water. The riverbed is very deep, and it became increasingly dangerous to collect water because of the slippery banks. The women often had to walk between 1 km and 3 km on hilly ground, transporting water on their backs (picture 3.).

The School and Dropout Services Association decided to launch a pilot project with very limited financial resources to rehabilitate the banks of the Thugi River.
To begin with, its members had little idea of how to achieve this. Then someone proposed planting trees. But trees do not always grow to adult size, as they are often cut down young for firewood. However, planting bamboo seemed to be a good alternative, since it grows in clusters that are beautiful to look at.

3. Illustration showing the shores of the
Thugi River in Kenya.
© School and Dropout Services
4. Diagram of the banks of the river Thugi.
© School and Dropout Services
5. Plantations on the shores of the river.
In the first plot, erosion has been reduced.
© School and Dropout Services

bladEmbankment rehabilitation

The area around the Thugi River in the 1950s–1960s used to be marshy with reeds, but the lands were cleared for agricultural purposes. During the rainy season, the river flooded the agricultural plots. In the dry season, the local farmers dug trenches so that water flowed from the river to the individual plots.
In this way, the farmers were able to grow arrowroot, sugar cane, vegetables, maize, potatoes and other crops (picture 2.).

The portion of the Thugi River in Kiranga, in the district of Maragwa, was selected for the rehabilitation of the embankments (picture 4.).
A shamba, a small plot of land used in subsistence farming, was selected in 1981 and bamboo was planted along the banks.
An agricultural counsellor from the region became interested in the project and the financing was assured by donations.

One of the difficulties consisted of finding bamboo seedlings to plant. The volunteers identified an area in Nairobi with a large quantity of bamboo, about 100 km from Muruka. Several individuals volunteered to uproot bamboo shoots with the roots, a process that is rather difficult to achieve. A few days were required to arrange the bamboo shoots for replanting. It was not certain that the bamboo would grow again once it had been transplanted. After a few weeks, the shoots, which were watered every day, started to produce new leaves and within no time a hedge began to take shape. Today, after a few years, the plants are mature and can be harvested as fence poles.

In the shamba that was chosen, bamboo was planted despite strong resistance from the farmers. They argued that the bamboo roots would ruin the earth of the shamba and that nothing else would grow there.

Today, the bamboo is mature and has thrived. The embankment mounds have become firm and stable, so that a rise in water level does not immediately flood the surrounding plots despite the depth of the riverbed.
The plot directly opposite the planted shamba, on the other side of the river, belongs to an owner who did not want to plant bamboo: instead he extended his plot right up to the riverbank. There, the riverbank has widened and even encroached on agricultural land (picture 5.). This clearly demonstrates that planting bamboo contributes to the rehabilitation of the banks of the Thugi River.


The rehabilitation of the Thugi River embankment controls the evolution of the riverbed, which continues to eat away the riverbank.
The bamboo plantation has proven to be effective in stabilizing and reinforcing the soil and in preventing bank erosion. Thus, the land surrounding the river embankments can be cultivated without the fear of gully erosion or flooding.
The following measures were necessary for the rehabilitation of the Thugi River banks:

  • Training the population in adequate farming methods.
  • Rehabilitation of regions affected by desertification.
  • Environmental education.
  • Public awareness campaigns.
  • Funds for supporting community projects.

This case study was proposed by Mrs Rosemary Waweru
For more information, please contact her at the following address:

Mrs Rosemary Waweru
Director General
School and Dropout Services
PO Box 55814

Tel. (+254) 2 80 22 80
Fax (+220) 2 80 22 80



The teacher tells the class how planting bamboo rehabilitates the banks of the Thugi River.


Where is Kenya located?
Is your country on the same continent as Kenya?
What characterizes the climate of Kenya compared to your country? Does your region encounter the same problems
of desertification?
What are the differences?
What are the similarities?


Design the Thugi River banks with one side planted with bamboo and the other side cleared. In your drawing, show how the planted side is stabilized compared to the cleared side that is collapsing and eroding.
Explain your picture.


Is there are a river in your region? What are the banks like? Would it be useful to plant bamboo or other local species to stabilize the banks?


Devise a play showing two owners who own an agricultural plot on either side of the river. One of them has planted bamboo trees on his bank, the other has refused saying that it would interfere with crops.
It’s up to you to imagine the rest!


Tick the correct answers from the following:

In Kenya, bamboo is planted on the Thugi River embankment to:

• prevent the local farmers from cultivating coffee.
• facilitate access to the river.
• act as a sand barrier.
• act as a windbreak.
• reduce noise.
• stabilize the riverbed.
• prevent flooding.

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