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Someone recently asked me if there is always something to do when you are working with farmers. My very short answer was: yes. Activities on the small farms of our farmers of course depend largely on the season, and often farming is treated as a part time business because the scorching equatorial sun makes it impossible to work on the farm after noon. But regardless of the season, activities in the Momentum office are many and plenty. This blog will hopefully give you a little window into some of the things that take up our time.
We have finished distributing the bulk of the farm inputs to our farmers now. During the past couple of weeks we have delivered more than 14 tons of CAN – the top dressing for the maize. Last season, it was delivered along with everything else, which resulted in some unfortunate mishaps for certain farmers who confused the DAP, the fertilizer to be used before planting, with the CAN. Hopefully everyone will do topdressing with the right product at the right time this season.
The very last thing remaining for the farmers loan package delivery to be complete are the banana seedlings we included in the packages. Soon they will be ready to leave the nursery and make their way to their new homes at the small farms. There are many advantages to bananas. Besides being nutritious and able to help secure a better diet for our farmers, they are also easy to sell here in Siaya County. In many villages there is a lack of fruit, and on the market in Ouru (which you will find a picture of in the top of this post) the only fresh things you will find are tomatoes, onions and cabbage. Only twice in the last two months has a stray banana seller found her way to our little corner of the world.
If a farmer takes well care of the banana seedling s/he will soon receive, that seedling will grow into a healthy banana tree that will yield bananas 3 to 4 times a year. It is possible to take the banana suckers, the small shoots to be found at the base of the plant, and transplant them to make one plant grow into many. All of the Momentum trainers and the group leaders were gathered for a two day seminar on growing bananas in which the banana expert and owner of the nursery from where our banana seedlings are growing came to visit us. As with everything Momentum does, training is essential. The knowledge of how to take care of the bananas will reach all group members via the group leaders and the Momentum trainers, and for some this will be the start of a very nutritious and profitable banana venture.
Working in agribusiness and with farmers is more than distributing farming inputs. The inputs are worth next to nothing without proper training on how to use them. This goes for all the inputs we provide, not just banana trees. Right now some of the groups who have been with us since the beginning are nearing the end of their training material packages, which means that they have gone through all the agricultural and business lessons set up for them. For us this means that we must consider how to proceed from here. In some groups members have expressed an interest in repeating everything again step by step, whereas others want more. As farmers work within Momentum groups they seem to change their attitudes towards knowledge, and many have been telling me that knowledge is the key to advancing themselves in life. Knowledge is power. At the office in Ouru we are working on developing new training material and drawing up new plans for our trainers and groups to follow to make sure they keep moving in the right direction and stay motivated. The local staff is once again proving their worth by dishing out ideas and drafting manuals on things that farmers can work on without the need for investment, like how to make compost at the farm for the farm.
On a daily, weekly and monthly basis we also have our share of challenges to deal with in Ouru. Loan repayment is among one of our recurrent challenges. To be fair, we have a very high rate of loan repayment, it’s nearly perfect, but that does not mean that we do not have to kindly remind our farmers that we are serious about them paying back their loans. On average only two or three of our groups bring their collective loan repayments to the office without us calling and sometimes going there in person. As a foreigner in Kenya it is striking how new the concept of a loan is to many of the locals. Some locals have been ‘spoiled’ by previous organizations coming and handing out all sorts of inputs for free, and they struggle to understand the benefit to them if they actually have to pay for the services we offer. Those locals, however, tend to not join the Momentum groups. Most of those who do join our groups have seen the impact the hand-out-organizations leave behind when they leave, and they all do leave once their funding is exhausted or cut. In the words of one of our farmers these organizations: “drop people on the ground in the same or even worse state than when they came”. We talk about joint responsibility for development with our farmers when we meet them. We talk about the need for them to repay their loans because that is the basis on which we build our capacity to provide them with inputs for the seasons to come. My guess is that 99% of our farmers understand this aspect of Momentum, but we still see a great difference in the way they work together and in how proactive they are when it comes to repayments. The entire Momentum team, myself included, is convinced that this has something to do with how well farmers work in groups. Working in groups is not something Kenyans are brought up with, so they do not necessarily jump at the thought of being collectively responsible for loan repayment and working on their lands. I believe it will continue to be a challenge for many seasons to come to figure out how the Momentum office can ensure that our groups work together, when it comes to preparing their land, planting and loan repayments.
All of the above are some of our daily activities and challenges. In the coming weeks we will busy ourselves with things such as the development of the loan packages for the long rains 2015 and planning of mobilization of new farmer groups, on top of all of our daily activities.
For the past month we’ve been collecting yield information from our farmers; from each and every one who took the Momentum farm input loan for the long rain season 2014. We finally know how many bags of maize and sorghum each individual farmer harvested, and we can begin to evaluate the extent of the impact being a Momentum farmer has had on our community.
The long rain season 2014 in Siaya County, Kenya, was in many ways particular. The rain fell irregularly and in lesser amounts than what is to be expected from a long rain season. Unfortunately irregular rainfall is becoming more and more like a pattern in Kenya, which makes it increasingly difficult for small-scale farmers to plan their farming activities. Small-scale farmers do not have irrigation, water-harvesting mechanisms, or even sometimes access to water sources near their farms. When the rain refuses to follow the traditional patterns of the long rain season and short rain season farming becomes more and more of a gamble, and some farmers end up harvesting next to nothing. For some of our farmers the irregular rainfall of the long rain season 2014 was not the only challenge; a specific type of certified seed completely failed to germinate. The germination issue was not confined to Momentum farmers only, it was a national issue throughout Kenya during the long rain season. The producer of the seed was eventually ordered to rectify its mistake by providing all customers with new seeds. But of course, this took time. Momentum tried to act faster to help the farmers who had chosen that seed type, and replaced the seeds with new ones as soon as the problem became clear. However, by that time the lack of rain resulted in extremely poor germination even of the good seeds. When asked about the liability of the seed producer for loss of output on farms across Kenya our local Momentum staff looked at me and said: “No Mie! It does not work like that!”. And then they laughed at me, perhaps they though my notion of right and wrong a bit peculiar.
By all accounts the Momentum farmers have experienced progress. The average farmer harvested 7 bags of maize on 1 acre, where before the average farmer harvested 2.5 bags of maize on 1 acre. That’s a 280% improvement. Some individuals and some groups have made far better improvements, such as the Odheyo village group who increased their average yield of maize by 437%. I hope this stands to show that what Momentum is doing is working, and that is also testifies to how serious a lot of the farmers we work with are taking our teachings. As I am reminded almost every day by either the Momentum staff or one of our farmers; nothing comes from farming without hard work.
These are promising results from a first season. Some farmers have taken good strides out of poverty, but all still have a way to go. We have checked with out farmers how much of their output they are keeping for consumption and how much they will sell. Only very little will be sold, which for us as Momentum is a lesson in how far from being food secure people of this area are.
From talking to many of our farmers over the past month, one of the comments made most often was: Momentum mustn’t give up. You should keep on working with us until we can stand on our own two feet.
That is evidence of the good relations Momentum has built in this community, and the need for our continued presence here.
During the long rains there were more challenges than the ones I’ve mentioned above, what we can call more normal challenges. The beautiful but destructive striga weed took a toll on the harvests in a couple of our villages, and some of our farmers despite having pledged themselves to follow the improved farming techniques and having attended the training, decided not to abide by the teachings. For us the last challenge is a conundrum. My conversations with some of those farmers have revealed little as to why they decided to ignore everything they had learned during the training. One or two had a funny excuse such as: “My husband is not part of Momentum, and he refused to listen to me!” – but most could not give a straight answer. Fortunately for the particular lady her husband has now seen the difference between their yield and the yield from Momentum farms where things were done right. She has assured me that he will listen to her in all the land preparations and plantings to come.
Transferring knowledge to our farmers, making sure they understand how and why they should work their land is a process. Some seem to absorb and believe in the teachings from day one, but with others it will take more than one season for it to really sink in.
I will leave you with a picture of Kevin and Paolo working on the Momentum demonstration farm, in which I can assure you that they are following all the Momentum teachings down to the very last detail.