After Zimbabwe, we travel to Kenya. Here I am to visit some Farm Africa projects and to host a donor cultivation event, whose purpose is to introduce private equity, corporate investors and potential new partners to our work in East Africa, but specifically in Kenya where we have regional headquarters. With a team of 200 staff operating across Eastern Africa, Farm Africa is a unique NGO with over 35 years of experience working with small scale farmers in agriculture, market engagement and natural resource management. We work collaboratively with communities and business to build resilient and sustainable livelihoods so that people and the planet can thrive together. I only recently joined the Board so am anxious to leverage my contacts and see the work that we do in person.
Sunday is a rest day, and we have lunch at the renowned Muthaiga Club with old friends William Pike and Cathy Watson. William and I are both children of the Groundnut Scheme and Cathy and I worked together at Heinemann – and we’ve kept in touch. I managed to snap a surreptitious shot of the Club’s magnificent Arab chest before being told off! I am also gratified to see the last three remaining copies of my Mum’s out-of-print book on Chests is on sale in the Serena shop! In the evening we meet up with another old Heinemann colleague, Henry Chakava, who was CEO in Kenya before founding East African Publishing House. Here I am continuing the book trade with him – I got some of his home grown coffee in return.
It’s a 6 am start on Monday to avoid Nairobi’s notorious traffic and soon we are whizzing off towards Embu, expertly driven by Charles. The road takes us through fertile rice-growing regions before we reach the semi-arid area where our AGRA-funded projects are based. We are greeted by Patrick Nyaga, the project Coordinator, and Godfrey, the programme manager, who give us an excellent presentation on regenerative agriculture which is at the core of this work.
Essentially in order to encourage resilience in these difficult times, and help preserve the environment for future generations, we have been working with 100 Village Based Advisors (VBAs) who in turn each cascade their knowledge to 200 small-scale farmers, reaching 10,000 people. We are encouraging them to mix their farming – instead of simply growing the traditional crop of maize, to intercrop with beans, green gram, soy, fruit trees, agro-forestry, start kitchen gardens and keep chickens and goats for milk, manure and eggs.
Using minimum tillage methods, they plant with manure and use the mulch they create from trees they have grown and other waste. In this way they manage to hedge their bets in an area where the rains have failed for four consecutive years. While we are there it is the main topic on conversation – some seeds are planted, others are just waiting.
The VBAs use digital platforms to give help and advice and dish out some free seeds to start their farmers off. We are thrilled to meet two wonderful VBAs: first Juliet, who speaks excellent English and proudly shows us her three goats, her vegetables (we swap notes on kale and spinach), her chick incubator (she has up to 1000 at a time which she sells on), her solar panels and her emergency generator as supply is so haphazard. Before visiting her shamba to show us the minimum till and planting she was doing (mostly herself though I was amused to note a lone man finishing the job!), she makes us a cup of tea using her own goat milk. A bit rank to be honest – but it was hot and we had forgotten to bring water!
Our next stop is to visit Carol, another VBA. Here there is a welcoming committee of various women friends and farmers. They meet regularly for advice and today they are being given seeds. Lots of totos running around, very curious about us. Again Carol was walking the talk – she has about 50 hens, and buys chicks from Juliet to rear and sell on. Her vegetable garden is impressive, growing leafy greens in net towers which is effective and economical on space. She gives us a couple of papayas and five avocados as a gift. All delicious.
Carol is younger than Juliet, but quite the entrepreneur. We walk to her fields with her gaggle of women, who she soon put to work planting for her. She tells us they all help each other out. ‘I like to talk so I go and visit the famers as I am alone,’ she quips.
Their husbands mostly work, either away – Juliet’s is a teacher and only comes home at weekends, while Carol’s goes into the nearest town every day. During Covid he had been laid off so life had been tough. But they bubble with enthusiasm about the difference Farm Africa and regenerative agriculture has made to their lives and livelihoods.
However, the visit underscored to us how precarious these existences are. Without rain all these activities might not – literally – bear fruit. In addition, many farmers are growing khat, the Somali hallucinatory plant which is extremely popular all over East Africa, a real cash crop. It uses up a lot of water and lays waste to the land. The ‘khat run’ from up here to Nairobi is notorious for its accident rate.
Our VBAs do their best to try and demonstrate to people there is a better way, but obviously mixed farming is much more labour-intensive, and the profits superficially less. It is hard to persuade these farmers that they need to eat, and when there are food shortages because they are not growing any, the cost of buying foods from other famers will outweigh the profits from their khat. But the VBAs don’t give up and lead by example.
Ross and I are both bowled over by our day in Embu and it sets us up nicely for our event the following day.
It is always a bit nail-biting organising an event remotely, wondering who will turn up. Nairobi’s traffic is quite off-putting, so on the night we are delighted that over 50 people attend. The event was jointly hosted by Kenya Chair and Trustee, Jane Ngige, and supported by Programmes Director Tom Cadogan, Kenya Programmes Manager Mary Nyale and her team of Stephen Kiiru, Dr Diana Onyango, and Anastasia Mbatia, who populated the information stations, tackling subjects such as livestock and landscapes, business supply chain development, and forestry and carbon financing. There was a real buzz in the room.
Ross and I feel privileged to be able to support the relevant and serious work that Farm Africa does; we hope that the return on our investment will be great. We certainly achieved the objective of introducing Farm Africa to a new range of potential partners and investors in the Kenya business community. Now we just need to convert the enthusiastic responses to firm commitments!