Mrs. Lonah Akumu: One Woman’s Story of Resilience Championing SRI in western Kenya
The soft-spoken Mrs. Lonah Anyango Okumu is an uncelebrated heroine in her own right. This mother of seven children is a widow who has overcome many odds to bring up and educate her family single-handedly as well as become a leading champion of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), in western Kenya. Born in 1961 in Karachuonyo, Homa Bay County, Lonah later married Mr. Akumu of Ahero Irrigation Scheme in Kisumu rural in 1981. This introduced the young Lonah to paddy rice farming, a rather new experience to her. She and her husband were happily married and were blessed with seven children. The couple cultivated paddy rice under conventional flooded check-basin irrigation, as a source of food and income. Unfortunately, in 2003, her husband passed on, and Lonah was left a widow. She struggled farming paddy rice, raising her family and educating her children all alone. Life was tough as farm inputs were expensive, rice cultivation had high labour demands, while yields were low and thus poor income from rice farming left Lonah with many problems. To augment family income, she sometimes used to work as a casual worker in other farms, while also cultivating her 4 acres of paddy. Moreover, the continuous flooded paddies meant that poor Lonah spent every day of the crop season in stagnant water, exposing her to water-borne diseases.
In 2010, Lonah was among the first batch of farmers from western Kenya who were trained on SRI by Prof. Bancy Mati of JKUAT. She quickly identified with the need to use less seeds, reduced labour for weeding and the promise of higher yields and better incomes from SRI. Thus, Lonah was one of the first SRI adopters in Ahero Irigation Scheme. She was trained as a ToT (Training of Trainers) in 2011 through Prof. Mati’s initiatives in promoting SRI at the time, further improving her skills.
Lonah says that at first, she thought SRI is complicated. Before SRI came, when she cultivated rice in conventional paddies, she would plant 25 kg of seed per acre and transplant the seedlings when they were 28 days old. She was not sure the new method would work. So in her first year, she tried SRI on one acre, using just 5 kg of seeds and transplanting 12 day-old seedlings. The crop did very well and she counted 105 tillers on her SRI plot. At harvesting, the one acre yielded 35 bags of paddy compared to the 20 bags obtained from conventional paddies. From that time on, she converted to growing all her rice by SRI method and has never looked back since.
As a woman, Lonah has faced several challenges, especially as a widow. Sometimes there is shortage of water, in which case, men can go out to irrigate at night when water is sometimes flowing, but as a woman, she can’t. She requires capital to buy fertilizers and pesticides, and due to family demands, at times she can’t afford. But even with these struggles, she has remained steadfast as an SRI farmer. As a ToT, Lorna has trained many other farmers on SRI and has been a motivational speaker for the system. Currently in 2016, all her 4 acres of paddy are under SRI. She urges other farmers, especially women, to adopt SRI. It is for this reason that we consider Mrs. Lonah Anyango Okumu a champion of SRI in Kenya.
 Professor at JKUAT and SRI Project Coordinator in Kenya
 Officer in Charge, West Kano Irrigation scheme, Kenya