Crop diversification as a smallholder livelihood strategy within semi-arid agricultural systems near Mount Kenya

Paul F. McCord, Michael Cox, Mikaela Schmitt-Harsh, Tom Evans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


Crop diversification is one strategy that smallholder farmers may employ to reduce their vulnerability in the face of global environmental change. Diversification not only expands the number of potential crop types for market, it also improves agroecosystem functioning by building redundancy into the agricultural system and allowing for innovation in areas exhibiting impacts of climate variability. While the driving forces behind and impacts of crop diversification have been extensively investigated, there are particular issues for the prospects of crop diversification to reduce household vulnerability within semi-arid agricultural systems. The decision to diversify crops is a particularly challenging one for farmers in semi-arid systems. Semi-arid systems can exhibit greater variability in annual precipitation in areas that are marginal for agricultural production. Changes to the timing of the growing season (onset of rains) and mid-season dry periods in particular pose significant challenges to farmers in semi-arid ecosystems. This paper examines the spatial diversification of crop types across an upland-lowland gradient on Mount Kenya's northwestern slopes. We perform regression analyses using household-level survey data collected during the summer of 2012 to investigate the factors contributing to varying levels of crop diversification and implications for crop production in a semi-arid irrigated agricultural system. We hypothesize that the study area locations at higher elevations will be able to grow a greater variety of crops due to climate suitability. Our analysis demonstrates that household-level income, field size, exposure to agricultural extension officers, and suitability of environmental conditions are related to the likelihood of smallholder crop diversification. More favorable growing conditions appear to outweigh limitations posed by inaccessibility and financial constraints, which has implications for adaptation to climate change in semi-arid ecosystems. We discuss the results in the context of challenges posed by global environmental change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)738-750
Number of pages13
JournalLand Use Policy
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015


  • Agroecology
  • Crop diversity
  • Kenya
  • Semi-arid agriculture
  • Technology adoption
  • Vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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