Gerard Brown visits Kenya with Farm Africa
Almost exactly a year after the Africa Record Run was driven by Philip Young and Paul Brace, I was offered the opportunity to join Farm Africa’s Mathew Whitticase and Pam Davis on a recent trip to Kenya. Matt and Pam were there to visit some of the Farm Africa projects that have benefitted from the £40,000 raised by ERA supporters and I wanted to see for myself how the donations translate into real help on the ground transforming the lives of some of the poorest peasant-farmers in Africa.
Farm Africa isn't all about ploughs and crops. In Western Kenya the population has traditionally harvested fish from Lake Victoria. Tilapia, Catfish and Nile Perch are among the most favoured species but Lake Victoria has suffered severe overfishing and catch yields are declining to the extent that group of more than twenty can work for eight hours every day dragging two nets for a total catch of as little as 10kg of fish. The results are so poor that they hardly merit the effort involved.
Necessity is the mother of invention though and, although the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life” may be flawed in this case, “Show a man how to farm fish…” and you're suddenly into a life-changing experience. Fish farming or aqua culture was the obvious alternative to providing food, employment and business opportunities for the local population. Fish ponds are straightforward, although backbreaking, to dig and this area isn't one with a water shortage.
A well-stocked and properly managed pond can be 'harvested' in nine months with almost guaranteed results. The fish can be eaten by the farmer with the surplus sold into the wholesale market. Profits, and they are good ones by Kenyan standards, can then be used to provide for the family and are often reinvested in the business thereby ensuring that the entire enterprise grows exponentially.
Farm Africa are backing these aqua-culture projects in the Kisumu area of Western Kenya and they have been instrumental in setting up a network of Aqua Shops to provide training, advice and all the necessary fish-food, fertilizer and materials. These businesses are not charities though, every day the farmers and shopkeepers make hard-headed decisions but it was the ‘seed corn’ provided by Farm Africa that got them up and running.
Children in Kitui district tucking into a mango. This particular soft fruit has been a big success story for Farm Africa. Farmers have mastered the art of bringing them to ripeness throughout the year rather than having all of the crop fruiting at the same time. The usual glut has been eliminated and prices are more stable.
An excellent example of market diversification can be seen in the partnership with the East African Brewery company which buys much of the Kitui sorghum crop to make a white beer rather than use the more traditional barley which has recently become an unreliable crop. The highly motivated Johnson Gachuhi of Mwailu Enterprises, the Farm Africa grantee, buys the Sorghum from the farmers, consolidates it and then sells it on the open market. The farmers are paid in one of three ways, cash on the day, or via the Mpesa mobile phone money transfer system, or it can be put on account for them.
As far as water conservation goes, Farm Africa have worked alongside Amref, a Kenyan charity, to help build a low dam in April 2013 to hold back rain water. Set alongside this are shallow terraces, which means that women like Esther and Christine can grow market garden type crops. They told us told of their pride and delight at being able to take 90kg of kale to the market every week. A far cry from 2011 when the rains failed totally and there was no chance whatsoever of growing anything. It was a 14km walk just to fetch drinking water!
Zai pits are another solution to growing successfully in dry areas. They are basically a big hole that is around 60cm deep and lined with an organic mulch to trap any water running into them. Up to four stems of maize can be planted in each and the crop we saw in such a zai pit was significantly healthier than those grown conventionally.
Throughout the week long trip I was consistently struck by three things: how hard the farmers work to put food on the table for their families, how little they have in terms of tools and specialist machinery and how much of an impact Farm Africa is having in helping them turn things around. Simple things like advice on sowing or crop rotation or supplying a good quality spade or wheelbarrow can have a huge impact. As one woman in Kitui County said 'Being able to feed my family brings peace, and selling the surplus produce brings us extra joy'.
This extra 'joy' could be the ability to buy a more secure and weatherproof tin roof for their home rather than making do with grass thatch, paying school fees or to properly looking after their extended family.
Ndonga Maithya was born in 1926. He served with the East Africa Rifles during the Second World War and fought the Italians in Ethiopia and Somalia. The former Bren-gunner now lives with his two daughters and their families in the village of Katikoni in Kitui province. Thanks to their hard work and the input from Farm Africa his retirement is safe and secure.
The group of female farmers we met here are also adding value to their crops by making cakes, doughnuts and porridge to sell at the weekly market alongside the more obvious raw materials and, at the end of a long day in the fields we sampled some of this added value. We sat down with a nourishing mug of sorghum porridge and a slice of millet cake along with a local government extension officer to hear many more stories of success through hard work and partnership.
Africa is well known for its wildlife and the money and benefits that it brings in via tourism is vital to many economies. While we didn't have time to take in a safari on this trip it was good to leave with the knowledge that the rarest of animals, including the one and only African Panda, had played its small part in helping so many out of poverty.
You can find out more about Farm Africa and their work at www.farmafrica.org