When African Inland Mission (AIM) preacher Bill Retie and his wife Rosemary set foot on the dry and severely eroded Kerio Valley in Elgeyo Marakwet County, it never dawned on them they would leave behind an indelible mark of farming success decades later.
Upon pitching camp in one of the highland regions of the North Rift to spread the gospel more than three decades ago, the missionaries also saw the need to introduce locals to agriculture.
The couple teamed up with local leaders and helped revolutionise farming through a new approach aimed at intensive food production.
They literally tamed the wilderness and now, the once desolate and barren valley flows with the sweetest and juiciest varieties of mangoes, avocados, tomatoes, pawpaws and tissue bananas in the country. Also, goat milk is in plenty.
How did they transform the wilderness into a Biblical Canaan? First, they encouraged the residents to accept the word of God and farming as a way of life.
Once they were convinced, the couple started Cheptebo Rural Development Centre after the community donated 50 acres that is now a centre of excellence in horticulture in Kerio Valley and beyond.
The centre manager, Joseph Kimeli, says majority of residents of the semi-arid valley over decades have been distinct pastoralists who kept migrating from one place to the other in search of better pasture.
Kimeli says for centuries, the inhabitants of the Kerio Valley region held the misconception that nothing much could come out of the rocky, high-temperature and scrubby terrain. They had resigned to their traditional pastoralism.
But when Retie arrived, he discovered that the major problem was lack of water.
“He carried out a research and laid 4.2 kilometres of pipes to bring down water from the escarpment at Changach Barak River through gravity for irrigation,” Kimeli says.
With water in place, the missionaries introduced crop and animal husbandry and in 2001, the centre started a dairy goat project after buying prolific Kenya Alpine breeds from Central Province and this quickly became a centre of attraction to goat enthusiasts and residents.
“As soon as the goats were brought, farmers visited the development centre saw how productive they were. The goats produce more milk than the traditional ones. A litre sells for Sh200,” says Kimeli. He says the goats give birth to twins or triplets and last year, one gave birth to six kids.
Kimeli says goat’s milk is nutritious and preferred for young children and sick people, since it is believed to boost immunity.
“To maintain productivity, we have a zero grazing unit for the goats where they are fed on local food and they don’t consume much. Farmers are replicating the same in their farms, which has seen them increase their investment,” he says.
Farmers down the Kerio Valley now earn more than Sh950,000 annual income from dairy goats. At the centre, a mature goat is sold for between Sh10,000 and Sh15,000 depending on its size.
Apart from the goats, the missionaries also improved crops grown in the region such as bananas, mangoes, avocados and pawpaws.
The centre produces seven varieties of mangoes, all of which are on high demand due to their high quality. They include Van dyke, Apple, Ngowe, Tommy Atkins, Kent, Sensation and Sapine.
“All these are improved mango varieties that take only two to three years to start fruiting. Most of the local varieties often take about seven years to start producing the first fruits,” Kimeli says.