Mary Mbeyu’s life took a different turn when she gave birth to her last born daughter 18 years ago.
Her little girl had hydrocephalus, a condition that causes build-up of fluid in the brain cavities, making the head enlarge.
Neighbours asked if she had applied vanda, a herb that people in her mijikenda community believe fattens body parts, on the baby’s head.
Others told her to hide her baby. With each passing day, it became apparent that her baby’s condition was being used against her.
“I was doing small scale business, and I realised some customers had stopped coming. Some said I was bewitched and bad luck surrounded me,” she says.
She had to think of ways to ensure her daughter got the best out of the circumstances.
She went into farming. A decision she admits took a lot of thinking. She neither had training in farming nor interacted with any serious farmer in Kadzandani, Nyali where she lives.
Her first try was a flop. She ventured into goat farming but all her animals were stolen within the first month.
She then went into chicken farming, but lost most of them when they were ravaged by disease before maturity.
“I needed someone to guide me and tell me where I was going wrong,” she says.
Her hope was restored in 2014 when Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) initiated a women empowerment programme in the region.
“One of my friends told me the university was training women on how to find farming solutions that would earn them money. At first, I did not think I qualified because I imagined a university would only want to work with graduates,” she says.
After much convincing, she travelled to Mombasa for the one-week training on strengthening the capacity of grassroots women for wealth creation and socio-economic development.
The programme was being facilitated by JKUAT in collaboration with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
“We realised there are many women out there who need just a little push to attain their full potential,” says Joan Mugambi, head of extension services who coordinated the programme.
At the training, they were taught on an array of topics, including book keeping, managing small scale farms, value addition and marketing skills.
“I came back from the training, and I realised I could even use traditional herbs such as aloe vera to control diseases in my chicken,” she says.
Arrow roots crisps
She immediately started over by buying another set of about 30 chicken.
Since then, she has been selling chicken and eggs, saying that even though she does not do it in large scale, she gets enough money to sustain her family.
She also grows arrow roots and when they mature, she sells them and uses some to make arrow roots crisps, a skill she learnt at the value addition lesson by JKUAT.
Her daughter, the one who people say was cursed, is now a studying hairdressing and beauty at Kisauni polytechnic. “I am glad that I focused on how to grow my family and did not listen to what others were saying about my situation,” she says.
Maimuna Sa’ad, another beneficiary says she was at loss with what to do with her time when she retired as a bank teller almost ten years ago. She had worked in formal employment for two decades, and was not sure she would survive life outside the office.
Things changed when she decided to sponsor a student in Kisauni polytechnic.
“There was so much poverty around me. I met children who wanted to desperately go to school, but their parents could not afford it so I decided to pay fee for one of them,” she says.
She was soon appointed a Muslim representative in the polytechnic’s board. It is while serving as a board member that she met Mbeyu who told her about JKUAT’s training programme.
“The thing about women is that when they know of something good, they tell one another,” she says.
For her, one of the biggest benefit from the training was getting confidence to stand before a crowd.
“They taught me how to be confident as a woman, and how I can articulate my points without getting nervous like I used to,” she says.
When she came from the training, she set up a women group: Mkunguni Women in Development in Nyali. She then got into planting trees for herbal medicine.
“I was combining what my religion had taught me about finding medicine in herbs, and what JKUAT taught me on how to use the herbs to create products,” she says.
Some of the trees she grows include moringa, aloe vera, mint, lemon grass, mbirimbi and fruits.
She makes oils, soaps, and through her group that consists of 15 other women, they produce products that they sell and exchange with other groups.
Mugambi says their main aim during the training was to make women know that if they come together, they can effectively fight poverty.
Maimuna says farming has also provided a distraction to the many youth she mentors. “They come to my farm and we work together. Instead of them roaming the beaches and getting influenced into drugs and other self-distractive businesses, I invite them here,” she says.
When Smart Harvest visited her farm, a group of young boys were helping her water her plants and prepare mulch.
Salim Juma, one of the young people who visits her farm regularly says they often get amazed at how they can grow several crops in a small piece of land.
“We recycle used containers and plant herbs in them. You do not need a big plot for you to get into herbal farming,” he says.
Both Maimuna and Mbeyu have experienced challenges in marketing their products. For Maimuna, finding people outside her neighbourhood has been a challenge.
“Sometimes, I am forced to give out products for free just to convince people that herbal products work,” she says.
Mbeyu says access to loans to expand the farm is not so easy.
She has set up a community based organisation of more than 100 people and hopes that they will engage in sustainable projects that will allow her to invest more in her farm.