How Kishushe residents earn from ‘river of grass’

By Jeckonia Otieno | Updated Fri, May 12th 2017 at 11:00 GMT +3

TAITA, KENYA: In Kishushe, Taita Taveta County, there is valley which never runs out of grass.
During the rainy season, it turns into a river and during the dry season it eases the pain of pastoralists from areas as far as Kajiado and Tanzania.
This has turned into a business opportunity where a local group is minting money through harvesting the grass during the rainy season.
The 20 members of Kishushe Cooperative Ranch now harvest about 3,600 bales of the naturally growing grass from the area spanning 120 acres twice every year during the rainy seasons.
The group started harvesting the grass manually in 2015.
Oliver Mwadime, the chair of the group says that the members would also do the baling manually which had its own challenges and it would take a lot of time and the bales were not uniform.
But assured of a market both in Voi and outside the county, the members had to up their game as well as earn.
"When it is dry, there are no economic activities here and we decided that we shall earn from this grass which grows freely and ends up wasted," says Mwadime.
At Sh5,000, the group 'leased' the field and decided to invest their time when time for harvesting comes.
Mwadime says, "During harvest, we camp here days and night working because we cannot go back to the homes and come back as it is far."
The group's treasurer Flora January explains that harvesting seasons are very tempting as they have to sleep in the valley.
"We carry basic needs and have to survive here as brothers and sisters as we collect the grass that has been baled," says January.
With motorized baler, the group members work during the day and rest at night. But Flora says grass harvesting is not made smooth just because there is a baler. While the baler does about 400 bales per day, it is prone to breakdown which forces the group to wait until it is fixed.
After harvesting, those who buy grass directly from the field pay Sh200 while those who buy it from the hay barn, situated near Kishushe shopping centre pay Sh250 to offset the transport costs incurred by the group.
The hay barn was contracted to help in storage of the grass by funds granted to the group through the Kenya Agricultural Value Chain Enterprises (KAVES) and has the ability to store about 4,000 bales of grass.
However, Mwadime says that despite the fact that they have a barn for storage, they still lose a number of bales to termites before they are transported to the barn.
Yet that is not all among the challenges they face. During the harvesting season in the wild, it is common to meet wild animals like snakes, buffaloes or even elephants at times bearing in mind the the Tsavo is not far from the valley.
January says, "We use our bare hands and the fact that we have to live here throughout also makes it difficult at times but this is where we earn our daily lives so we can never give up."
Most intriguing is that the valley does not dry up even in the driest of seasons allowing pastoralists and wild animals to graze in the field.
One farmer, Jimson Kambale, up in the hills of Taita who buys grass from Kishushe says it is reprieve for him as constant supply of grass is key to dairy keeping.
"Between the months of June and November when it is dry we get grass from Kishushe and that has enabled me get at least 60 litres of milk each day even with the biting drought," Kambale says.
Dedus Mwamburi, a senior dairy specialist with KAVES says that increasing the productivity of farmers is hampered greatly by lack of fodder.
"We deliberately purposed to increase acreage under fodder and we have emphasized fodder production in counties when we have ranches and here in Kishushe we see grass is growing naturally," says Mwamburi.