Sowing seeds of transformation among cassava producers: Experiences with farm households in Kilifi and Taita-Taveta counties at the Kenyan coast

Back in 2017, as a requirement of a degree of Masters of Science in Food Safety and Quality, I was privileged to join my class in a one week community outreach and assessment program in Kwale County. The one week assessment interrogated community food handling and safety knowledge to tackle the increasing cases of malnutrition and periodical cholera cases experienced in the county during that period. The one week interaction with the Mijikenda (nine sub tribes) gave me an endowed experience and a burning desire to make a trip again at the Kenyan coast and learn more about the communal orientation of the community. The dream got actualized when, fortunately, I merited as one of the students in the cassava project. This time, the trip was not to Kwale but to two other counties, Kilifi and Taita-Taveta, which boarder Kwale.

Farmers Training session at Mama Janes’ Kitchen- Mbale (economic empowerment of women)

In my earlier years, I lived having two perceptions about the Kenyan coast, typically dabbed a lifestyle of the Mombasa people; “Mombasa raha”, loosely translated as “Mombasa the home of luxurious living,” and that “Mombasa hakuna haraka” meaning everything at the Kenyan coast is done with no haste.  So when I got the opportunity to work with these two counties, I knew I had the perfect opportunity to learn about the Kenyan coast. At the same time, it dawned on me that I was in for a hard task. At this time, in 2018 April, I was walking into a society that had been declared by the Kenyan Government, just few months ago, as food insecure deserving food relief from the government since it had insufficient produce. I did a quick background check in the community and found out that despite being hunger prone, the community had grown Cassava crop since time immemorial. At this point I convinced myself that all was not lost. Hence I consoled myself that, the work could not be as hard but a little motivation to the farmers would help us to contribute to the actualization of two SDGs of Food and Nutritional security and eradication of poverty within this community.

Samwel Onyango with a 70 year old retired postal corporation driver in his 20 acres of cassava.

My interaction with the coastal farm households for the last one year has taught me and motivated me to be committed even further to the African Agenda 2063. The local farmers are committed to getting and adopting the new technologies presented to them by either the NGO’s, Banks and research institutions such as universities, Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organization (KALRO) and others.  Notably, the commitment of Kilifi county Extension officers Mr. Nyinge and Mr. Mwadzua is quite commendable. The first trip during the focus group, remarkably, Mr. Nyinge knew about 100 farmers by name, farmer group, homestead and some by their children names. The few questions he kept asking the farmers were, “Hello mama Y, how are the fruit trees we gave you fairing?” This became a chorus as we navigated the county. In this officer, I learnt that community interaction calls for meeting the farmers at their farms, moving a notch high to associate with them at personal level and sharing with them their experiences.   The up close interaction with the farmers showed an open interaction between the Extension officer and the farmers.  This way, the farmers learned while being motivated and with a clear focus of making money from agriculture while feeding their families.

Water Harvesting
Water harvesting in the lower regions, Mwatate and Voi

Cassava is grown in under 2 acres of land in Kilifi and Taita-taveta Counties by over 70% of farmers, however, there are a few farmers who have grown the crop in over 20 acres of land and are mincing millions from cassava crop cultivation.At the Kenyan coast, the people are endowed with a lot of crops, from traditional vegetables, coconut, bananas and tomatoes (Taveta sub county), beans just but to mention a few. The geographical location of the place and the presence of the Taita hills and the Indian Ocean creates a larger disparity in terms of micro climate. Some of the places I visited had an Altitude of Negative 10m while others had as high as 2200m above sea level. In the lower regions of Baharini, Mwatate, Voi, Bhughuta farmers do small scale goat rearing as a commercial activity and there are sisal farming alongside the growth of cassava crop.

Cassava value added cakes – increasing economic value of cassava- Baked at the university of Nairobi kitchen during a farmers training.

In the highlands there is commercialization of dairy animals though on small scale.  In my interaction with the farmers who mostly cultivated Cassava in under 2 acres of land, I was privileged to meet a retired old man, though young in his ambitions and desires. The gentleman who worked as a Postal corporation of Kenya driver before retirement narrated story worth sharing. “While I retired in early 2000’ I knew I had to venture into agriculture, I tried doing pawpaw but the returns were minimal. At a later stage, I decided to upscale my cassava crops, today I do close to 20 acres of cassava per each planting season. I have been able to educate my children and build a new house from returns from Cassava, something that I was unable to do during my employment age. I can assure you my son, Cassava crop is like gold to me.” The research assistant (guide) who walked me to the old man’s homestead and farm retaliated that the old man minced a lot of money from cassava farming and that he was on record of doing more than 50 acres and not 20 acres as he had reported.

Locally fabricated milling machine at mama Caroline Dama’s home in Kilifi county.

While growing up and during my schooling years, I was always advised and trained to take personal initiatives. I did not, however, appreciate or conceptualize it in a farmer’s life. ‘Local farmers do the same’ my mind was jolted when I met Mama Jane.  Mama Jane is a woman in Mbale, Taita sub-county. Mama Jane is an embodiment of self-drive towards the desires to actualization of desired motivation. She is quite motivated to do that which is within her capacity to help change her state. My first visit to Mama Jane’s kitchen, she did small scale value addition of cassava into boiled roots as well as crisps. My one year interaction with her has totally changed her perception about cassava and re-energized her to drive and expand her kitchen into a community training center. After training her in college on value addition, she was quite clear on what she wanted to do. Barely a month after training, she was already representing her county in a commonwealth event in Nairobi.  Lately she has been identified by the county as the face of cassava value addition. She recently (2020 February) organized a farmers training session in partnership with the University of Nairobi and the county Government of Taita-Taveta and I personally attended and affirmed that her drive to facelift the thinking of her fellow women was still a blaze.

Traditional milling stones

There is just so much I learnt from Taita-Taveta and Kilifi counties. One may not put a full stop with stating the level of peaceful co-existence amongst the people and the level of tolerance and humility of interaction.  The people cherish communal values and respect for the law including the clans’ headmen.

I take this opportunity to thank the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), the MasterCard Foundation and the University of Nairobi for giving me the opportunity to be part of the cassava project team. The cassava project is committed to contributing towards the realization of three SDGs that is Food and Nutritional security, Eradication of poverty and quality education for all. I still look forward to continue working with the people of Kilifi and Taita- Taveta counties as we focus to ensure enough food for all while raising the living standards of farm households.

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