Agroforestry for healthy learning

Students at Nturumeti Primary School are growing watermelons alongside timber and fruit trees as part of the Healthy Learning programme aimed at improving teaching, learning and nutrition.

"If all goes well, our watermelons will be harvested in 145 days" says Mr. Ernest Tobiko, head teacher of Nturumeti Primary School in the southern RIft Valley of Kenya. Watermelons have been intercropped with various tree species in an agroforestry learning plot in the school. Research from Brazil and elsewhere has shown that agroforestry systems combining trees with watermelons are indeed very sustainable and cost-effective, and the school is eager to try this out.

The agroforestry learning plot at Nturumeti Primary School is part of the school's Healthy Learning activities initiated in late 2008. Other ongoing Healthy Learning projects in the school include rainwater harvesting, kitchen gardening and a mango fruit orchard.

Use of practical activities to improve teaching and learning as well as the health and nutrition status of school children are among the main aims of the Healthy Learning programme. Nturumeti Primary School, located in a remote part of the agro-pastoral Narok North district in Kenya, has successfully contextualized this approach by making the projects participatory - thereby promoting learning by pupils, teachers and parents.

The school woodlot and fruit orchard are maintained by pupils who have adopted the valuable trees. This is done under the guidance of the teachers hence the 100% survival rate of the trees, even after an exceptionally dry year.

Adjacent to the woodlot is a fruit orchard where the school is growing grafted mango trees. The mango orchard serves as a demonstration site to the school community. Once the trees start fruiting, the pupils' meals will include a mango on certain days. Any surplus production will be sold hence bringing income to the school. Mangoes can play an important role in food-based strategies to reduce vitamin A deficiency and generate income. Mangoes have the highest pro-vitamin A content of all tropical fruits and can be produced in large quantities. The school is learning a lot from the World Agroforestry Centre's publication Mango Growing in Kenya and the Area Agricultural Officer has been providing relevant technical input to the school on good mango growing practices.

Nturumeti Primary School closely involves the community to ensure the sustainability of its projects. So far, they have assisted in the purchase of the seedlings, initial land preparation and establishing a fence around the school to protect the trees. They have also supported the school during the installation of a water tank to harvest rain water. In addition to that, community members replicate what is going on in the school in their homes.

Teachers and pupils have actively been using agroforestry learning materials to improve the projects as well as the school's academic performance. Miti, an African magazine focusing on tree growing as a business, is used in the preparation of lesson plans. And the Young African Express - an East-African magazine for school children (and their teachers) focusing on life skills, health and nutrition, and environmental education - is shared with pupils for easy understanding of science and related subjects. The Healthy Learning programme has already contributed to improved school performance: the school was awarded the best in the whole Division in the 2009 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE).

The Healthy Learning interventions in the school are fully supported by the relevant authorities in the district. "Healthy Learning is most welcome in this district. It is something that should have been carried out all along since it complements the school meals programme. It is necessary since this is the generation that can change a lot - especially in this community," says Mrs Jane Mtange, the District Education Officer for Narok North District.

The Healthy Learning programme was initiated by the Kenyan Ministry of Education in 2008, in partnership with the Flemish Association for Development Cooperation and Technical Assistance (VVOB) and the World Agroforestry Centre.

Story by Grace Mwaura and Tom Vandenbosch