With No Money, Kenyan Farmers Find Way to Feed Hungry

Beth Njambe in her maize field in Kisumu District in Kenya. Beth is growing multiple crops allowing her to feed herself and her family all year long.
When they hear cries of their fellow countrymen hit by acute food shortage, Kenyan peasant farmers in more productive areas have no money to donate. While they may feel the need and the wish to feed other hungry Kenyans, these farmers cannot reach out with financial help.

More than 3.6 million Kenyans are in urgent need of food assistance. Within Rift Valley, which has a population of about 10 million people, millions languish in hunger, depending only on relief food. Yet other Kenyans in the Valley are struggling to find ways to dispose of produce following a bumper harvest.

“I have been feeding my cattle with cabbages for lack of market. I had planted two acres of the produce and no one has bought a single piece,” says Michael Mwangi, a farmer at Taboga, Nakuru County.

An initiative, dubbed “Kenyans for Kenyans,” has asked well-wishers, through local media, to donate cash through cell phone money transfers. But Mwangi, along with other peasant farmers, does not have money to send. Some farmers do not even have mobile phones, let alone know how to use a money transfer service.

Then, some farmers in Nakuru and Nyandarua counties came up with a way to help that surpasses the value of a monetary donation. When local administration announced that the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) would be collecting fresh produce to ferry to starving Kenyans, Mwangi was more than willing to donate his surplus cabbages.

“I felt relieved. I always had a feeling of guilt as I chopped up cabbages to feed my cattle when there were Kenyans who slept with empty stomachs,” Mwangi tells me. With no other source of income save for his small-scale dairy and crop farming, Mwangi had no money to donate to starving Kenyans.“I do not even have a phone, but I heard through my church minister that KRCS would collect fresh produce from our area,” says Maina Gachuhi, a farmer at Kirima, Naivasha District. “I had a chance to feed a hungry Kenyan somewhere.”Maina had a bumper harvest of Irish potatoes and carrots in his four-acre piece of land. But lack of market demand caused a lot of it to rot in the land, costing him hefty losses.

“Now I feel better. Having donated three bags of potatoes (each bag weighing 110 kilograms) and two bags of carrots (each weighing 90 kilograms), I feel relieved. I fed someone and my harvest did not go to waste after all,” says Gachuhi.

When the food was transported to Paka, in East Pokot, residents celebrated with joy. But what shocked many was the announcement by the area assistant chief, Wilfred Namulet. “Fellow Kenyans, this food has been sent to you with love by other Kenyans whose areas received a lot of rain and had a bumper harvest.”

The villagers could not believe there were areas in Kenya where people had enough to eat. In this remote, dry part of Northern Kenya, most people rarely travel. Save for the few with money who can afford local tours, it is not a custom for Kenyans to travel even within their country.

The villagers’ joy could not be hidden after they received the food. “I have never tasted this fruit,” said a cheerfully smiling 80-year-old Chepokamoi Chadar as she munched a carrot. To her, this was more than a Christmas party, for she was assured of at least two meals in the next few days, thanks to the kind farmers.

“I wish we had irrigation schemes. I think the government should start such projects. This way, we could also produce our own food,” said James Loktari, 67. “Can‘t [the government] empower us so that we too can become givers of food rather than receivers?”

Though he has been a pastoralist all through his life, Loktari said he was ready to adopt crop farming if only to save him from depending on relief food. He blames the government for allegedly neglecting people from his area, adding that even if they had irrigation, they would have no roads to transport produce to the market.I had gone to Paka with a team from KRCS who was distributing food to more than 250 families in this area. The roads in East Pokot are in poor condition. I have visited several areas within the district and there is no single tarmac road. The ones used are dusty, rocky, and some parts have deadly potholes. The villagers lack radio sets and have no access to newspapers for the few who can read. No wonder they did not know that there are parts of Kenya where people have surplus produce.“At least these people will get a break from the normal maize, beans and supplements that the government supplies,” said South Rift Regional Manager Patrick Nyongesa. According to Nyongesa, KRCS is willing to supply more produce to drought-hit areas as long as the farmers could take them at an accessible point. Accessibility to farms, he says, was the main challenge that his team faced as they moved produce from one farm to another.

“If only the farmers could bring produce to central places, where our lorries have access, then KRCS could give them a chance to help their needy countrymen,” Nyongesa tells me. Despite the fact that small-scale farmers contribute a large percentage to the Kenyan economy, such farmers often have to bear with poor roads. The roads, especially during rainy seasons, are so bad that buyers avoid getting produce from some areas, causing farmers from those areas hefty losses.

So far, KRCS has distributed more than 600 bags of Irish potatoes at Nginyang, Mogotio, Marighat and other districts where people are facing a food shortage.

The government has a hard task empowering pastoralists in areas like Turkana, Pokot and Wajir. While there are areas that could be rather fertile, the problem is lack of water. If the government invested in harvesting water, raising dams, and digging wells, then areas known for drought could form a big part of the country’s breadbasket.

If Kenyan peasant farmers are feeling the pain of food shortages, then the government should feel more pain and look for a lasting solution. In this way, Kenya would no longer have to cry to the international community for food aid, and hunger would no longer be a national disaster.

By Rachel Muthoni

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