WEST KENYA – On a weekday in mid-February, a farmer plowed fields, leaving furrows of chunky red soil behind him. Another harvested green beans – the first of the season, while other farmers prepared their small plots for family use and to sell the excess.
About 200,000 people live in Cherangany, a mostly agriculture part of Kenya. The region does not have much in the way of industry.
“We are still so much behind,” said Wesley Korir, a world-class professional athlete and founder of the Kenyan Kids Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to farmers and academic scholarships to needy students. “(The farmers) haven’t gotten an opportunity to benefit fully from their agriculture abilities.”
The lines between the haves and the have-nots are deeply rooted in this part of the Rift Valley.
In addition to sponsoring students and helping fund a local hospital, the nonprofit foundation also supports families in need of land or farming help.
“Some people have land, but they don’t have enough money to plant or for equipment,” said Tarah Korir, Wesley’s wife. “There are other people who have no land.”
Julius Lamai, Wesley’s uncle and chairman of the foundation, said the three-year-old organization helped five farming families last year and anticipates sponsoring between 10 and 20 more this year.
“When the farms become successful, (we are) supporting less students,” said Lamai. “Farms are important because if (families) get food, they will have health and save some for their needs at home.”
The agricultural challenges in the remote region are being undertaken by the Korirs with help from visiting international farmers, such as Stewart Skinner. The Canadian farmer from Ontario spent nearly a month working with dozens of farmers in Cherangany.
“The overwhelming take-home message is the potential for the region to be very high producing,” said Skinner, waiting for a ride to visit native farmers.
Skinner estimated that there are about 100,000 acres of land in Cherangany that are agriculturally functional, but “there’s no USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) surveying office” that keeps track of exactly how many acres are useable.
“A lot of land is undeveloped either as pasture or scrub,” he said.
A lack of infrastructure and limited access to financial capital are some other challenges for native farmers. The lack of education is also a hurdle.
“There needs to be a knowledge transfer,” said Skinner. “For someone without schooling, there’s a lot you need to know.”
Besides solving the region’s educational quandaries, discussing Kenyan politics and Wesley’s training schedule, evening brainstorming sessions recently revolved around how to solve the agricultural questions that abound in Cherangany.
Wesley wanted to create a way for farmers to store their harvest and sell it as needed, which brings up the issue of drying crops and erecting storage bins that are easy and inexpensive to build.
Many of the group’s answers come back to the lack of financial capital and people’s inability to secure it. Skinner pointed out that it’s a challenge to open a bank account when some farmers don’t even have identification cards.
Over hot chai and boiled chicken, the group decided that one solution is to find an investor willing to start a bank for small farmers in Cherangany. Laughter surrounded the suggestion, but with this group of activists, a streak of seriousness accompanied the idea. Every idea is plausible.
Another solution, which is in the early phases of development, is to create farm co-operatives. Skinner saw similarities between current-day Cherangany and the turn of the 19th century in Canada and the United States when many cooperatives were formed.
“Most agri-businesses had their start as co-ops,” he said, adding that in Canada every little town had its own cooperative for farmers to pool and store their grain and get better prices on seed and fertilizers.
Skinner said he visited a few cooperatives that have organized in Cherangany. The farmers have diversified their crops to include things such as peas and green beans but they only bring home about 22 Kenyan shillings (26 U.S. cents) per kilo by the time the produce goes through four brokers and leaves Nairobi on its way to the United Kingdom.
“I believe if you bring them together, their voice will be more heard as a group then as an individual,” said Wesley.
To make a donation to advance sustainable farming in Cherangany, visit www.kenyandkidsfoundation.org.
Read about how the Kenyan Kids Foundation funds Cherangany education
To learn more about the Kenyan Kids Foundation, click here.