Polly Noyce: "It’s a shame that we had to destroy the environment to recognise how important it really is."
Ecological philanthropist and founder of Manor House Agricultural Centre (MHAC), Polly Noyce, outlines the ecological principles of agroforestry and the importance of healthy soils. Since 1984, Polly has dedicated her life’s work to aggregating smallholder farmers and spreading ecological agricultural philosophies to mitigate climate change.
Could you tell us about your background and how you came to live in Kenya?
I’m a Northern Californian girl, I grew up on the edge of Silicon Valley. I rode my horse every day after school and loved going out into nature. I went to the East Coast to do my degree in Physics for two and a half years before realising I wasn’t ready to live in an office through all the wonderful daylight hours. I was getting home too late to water my garden and I thought I needed to go back to school to find my purpose. I decided to pursue Environmental Studies along the Sustainable Agriculture track and that’s what took me to Kenya.
I was also an editor for Energy News – a monthly paper that talked about alternative energy. In August 1981, my sister was studying to be a medical doctor and she was asked by John Jeavons to attend a conference on renewable energy in Nairobi. She didn’t have the time, so she sent the information along to me. It was a great excuse as I could write an article about it for Energy News. I flew out to Nairobi for ten days with my husband at the time, and while I was there, I met some people who were instrumental in the birth of MHAC.
What was Kenya like when you arrived in the 1980s?
It was much less populated than it is now, and large-scale farms operated for the most part. It was part of the White Highlands and when the British left, large pieces of land were turned over to people who were eligible for a bank loan and who could buy property. Forty years later, their children’s children have been educated and don’t want to be farmers, so those big lands are subdivided into small farms.
In 1984, you set up MHAC, could you tell us how the idea evolved into reality?
I had come to Kenya to relay information for Ecology Action, which was valuable to Kenyan smallholder farmers. I was in a session with all men except for this one woman, who stood up and announced that I had something important to say. Afterwards, she invited me to her house for a traditional African meal along with a gentleman I had met, Patrick Peacey, who had been chaplain at Manor House Preparatory School in Kitale. We talked about what he was looking for and what I had come out to represent. There was some unity of purpose, so we kept ideas flowing for another two and a half years before Manor House was born. It was difficult though, as Patrick was living in the UK, myself in California and our founding trustee in Nairobi. The eleven-hour time difference resulted in many calls at inconvenient hours to move our agenda forward!
Patrick had a vision from God, which spelt out to him the terms of a declaration of trust. The original 40 acres of school property would be put to charitable use. With the help of Sir Humphrey Slade, he wrote up a declaration of trust under the Perpetual Succession Act of Kenya. They were looking for somebody to purchase back the school, so I took the information to the board of directors of Ecology Action. We wrote out a declaration, took out the reference to God and replaced it with environmentalism as a better way to meet the needs of people in Kenya. During School holidays at the end of 1981, Patrick flew to California to meet the Ecology Action Board and then we both flew to Kenya so he could show me Manor House. We travelled upcountry to see the site and I fell in love with the place. I was delighted by the gentle environment and the huge plants! We identified three founding trustees, including the woman who had invited me to her house where the whole thing began. By 1986, we had our two-year training programme running and have been pushing out graduates ever since.
At that time, what were the greatest challenges facing farmers? How does this compare to today?
The challenge was getting the necessary agricultural inputs that farmers needed to be successful. Around 80% of the Kenyan population survive on subsistence farming and it was hard for them to meet the demands of the international market. They were unable to buy medicines and anything manufactured outside the country, including tractors. It was hard to get bank loans as they had no collateral.
Today, there is a lot more financing available. The government is working on getting out title deeds to people who recently purchased land through schemes. What’s difficult is the unsustainable population growth, which puts a lot of pressure on agricultural land. There’s a lot of encroachment on forests and rivers, which need protecting because of their value as natural areas.
Can you define the ecological principles and strategies of MHAC?
It’s understood as agroecology, almost the same principles that I was taught at Santa Cruz University back in the ‘70s. In a nutshell, you must give back what you take from the soil, but the way that it is returned matters. Microbial life in the soil makes it sustainable and the continuous process of death and decomposition of microbial life releases nutrients to plant roots. Organically feeding the soil is the way we feed the planet. Carbon levels are essential to soil fertility and anything decomposing or composting acts as a sponge to absorb rainfall and keep the soil moist.
Since 1984, MHAC has trained over 500,000 smallholders. What difference has this made to the lives of these farmers and their local environment?
I only know a small portion of those farmers, but the ones I’ve talked to over many years are happy with what they’ve learned. It has given them a goal, objectives, a methodology and practical experience. They are still committed to what we taught them and give us glowing reviews. We take an ecological agricultural approach that doesn’t depend on capital-intensive farming, tilling, exposing soils to sunlight and speeding up the decomposition process. When you see this put into practise, it’s very rewarding.
What impact have you witnessed climate change having on farmers in Kenya?
It depends on where you are, for us here in Kitale and specifically at Manor House, the rains and winds are heavier, stronger and more destructive. We can manage it to some extent, but we had a lot of trees unexpectedly fall. We’ve had roads wash out and become so mired in mud that we had to find alternative routes. The rainy season is no longer reliable and the changing weather patterns mean we can’t plan as we used to.
How do you see agroecology helping mitigate or even reverse climate change?
It’s more diversified. We are putting plants together that help each other – there’s a symbiosis. In the environment, if a bird is going to destroy a crop and we don’t want that bird to be there, we can plant something else instead, without having to kill the bird or put down poison. It’s really about understanding what the threats and challenges are and taking mitigation measures. You then have several choices, which is where communication amongst farmers becomes so vital. Change comes slowly unless you see with your own eyes something that works - you learn from your neighbours.
How has COVID-19 affected the work you are doing at MHAC?
Last March when the government announced the threat of COVID, we closed the gates at Manor House for nine months. Training continued but we weren’t allowed to be an educational facility. Instead, we had interns, so the gardens and farmlands under production were maintained. Another group that’s still with us now at MHAC, the African Maths Initiative, continued to write computer apps to help Kenyans keep track of their records. It became very insular, even on my farm everybody who worked for me had to stay and we became a big family. We ate together, worked together, found enough space for everybody to sleep and made sure everyone had what they needed. Our employees could still send money home digitally as standard operating procedure and keep track of their families’ needs.
What are your ambitions for the coming year and are there any upcoming projects that you are particularly looking forward to?
I’m really excited about the TreeKenya Food Forest, which is built to emulate a real forest – only we will fill it with the plants and trees that best serve ecological and community needs. I became interested in the terminology a few years ago when it came to my knowledge that one of our graduates was saving rivers in his county through Biointensive Gardening Innovations (BIOGI). He was involving community groups, moving along rivers and showing them how to grow perennials that would be productive and hold the soil in place so the rivers could flow without corrosion. If you live along the river, you need to understand that the river doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to all the people downstream who depend on it. When trying to work out how to save our rivers, I came across the BIOGI example and thought the ideas should be communicated widely.
Protecting the water resources with forests is number one. Another way to talk about food forests is the multi-tiered levels of food production. From underground systems to bushes, to vines climbing a tree and the top-level trees, to the trees feeding the soil nutrients whose leaves supply animals with fodder - who then produce milk - to the trees that are producing medicinal feed, there’s information here. With knowledge handed down from ancestors combined with modern research in the agricultural realm, we can go anywhere. As long as we keep our soils alive. Everything seems to be coming together, which is what we needed after the last year. It’s just a shame that we had to destroy the environment to recognise how important it really is.
Where would you like to see intergovernmental organisations putting their efforts over the next decade?
They have to deal with issues brought upon us by climate change. How can the world feed this many people? Where will climate refugees be welcomed and how can they begin a livelihood that helps the Earth to continue to feed humanity and all living things? We need these agencies to be responsive to the people and living creatures who inhabit this Earth, not responsible for a single group of people with the loudest voices because they are the wealthiest. We need to question whether what we do is valuable and whether it is valuable because it profits us or because it makes it possible for our great-great-grandchildren to have a good life.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to add?
As an older person, I respect that my kids can teach me things. They shouldn’t give up on us old folk. We still have a bit of wisdom and sometimes, all we need is a better way to express it. When they help us to express ourselves in a way that they understand, they have empowered us. I would encourage the younger generation to empower the older generation to become better communicators.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Polly Noyce, Director at Crescent Springs Ltd