Farmers turn dry land to a cash cow

By Edwin Makiche

By the mid 90's, farmers in Siongiroi division in Bomet County were almost giving up after years of unsuccessfully practicing mixed farming. Their lives were turning out to be a rat race: buying farm inputs at exorbitant prices, leaving the crops to grow at the mercy of weather, and later disposing them at cheap prices.

For starters, the farmers in Siongoroi could not plant tea like their neighbours, because the soils in the area did not favour the crop.

A farmer feeds his dairy cow at his Siongiroi farm, Bomet county [Photo: Edwin Makiche/Standard]

Their only remedy was to plant maize both for subsistence and for sale, but this could also leave them in distress when the rains failed. Their next option — cattle keeping — was not reliable. This was because the quality of the herd was poor, as most people didn’t care about the quality but its size.

"Someone wouls keep 50 cows but could hardly produce 10 litres of milk," David Korir says. "It was also double trouble when unscrupulous middlemen and companies bought our milk at throw away prices."

Fortunately, these stories are part of the history that Korir and other farmers are happy to share when visitors admire their organised farms and thriving businesses.

Their turning point came after they discovered that they could engage in specialised dairy farming. This, according to Korir happened in 1996 when the residents held a series of community meetings. Their main agenda was to discuss the way forward after middlemen took advantage of the management woes that faced Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) - their major client then. A litre of milk had also dropped to a low of Sh7.

Unscrupulous middlemen from other tea growing parts of the county had capitalised on the situation and could take their produce almost for nothing. Korir says many farmers abandoned cattle keeping as a result. It did not help that hopes of KCC being revived were becoming elusive as more parastatals suffered the same fate.

Bleak future

Necessity would give way to invention in 1997, when faced with a bleak future; the community had to make painful decision to rescue themselves from their looming peril. They had resolved to start form their own cooperative, where they could collect and sell their milk collectively.

With a membership of slightly more than 100 farmers, they registered the Siongiroi Dairy Farmers Cooperative with an intention of eliminating middlemen who were continually frustrating their efforts. But even then, milk production in the area had fallen as many farmers had disposed of their livestock.

They sought assistance from Heifer International, a non-profit NGO that donates livestock, seeds and trees and provides extensive training to those in need. And with this assistance, the cooperative began acquiring productive dairy breeds in a bid to revive the dairy production in the area.

To strengthen their capital base, they engaged in intensive member recruitment, and each new member had to buy shares worth at least Sh5,000. They then used the proceeds to construct their own cooling plant. Farmers transported milk to the cooler with donkey carts to their markets.

Capital base

That was 12 years ago. Now they have proved that they are not just run-of-the mill farmers. The cooperative have grown both in membership and its capital base. Last year, the co-operative paid Sh207 million dividend to farmers from the milk proceeds. Moreover, the farmers also earn annual bonuses just like their tea counter parts.

The area is now giving the neighbouring tea producing zones in Bomet, Kericho and Kisii a run for money. The once sleepy Siongiroi town has now turned into a roaring economy, with many financial institutions fighting for space. The cost of plots in the town has also soared.

From humble beginnings, the farmers now o produce more than 10,000 litres a day and boast of an ultra-modern cooling plant with a capacity of 30,000 litres.

According to the plant’s manager Ferdinand Okinyi, the farmers fortunes have turned from good to better for the past three years. He says that with the improved profits, they are now able to provide several services to the farmers including advances, loans and farm inputs. He said that they sometimes pay Sh2 million advances to farmers per day.

The farmers have also benefited from field days, exposure visits and trainings. And because of their investments, the farmers have access to artificial insemination services from which they improve the grade of their herds.

Youths of the area have also gained from the venture through milk transport. Some of them who run boda boda businesses, and rake in between Sh10,000 and Sh40,000 per month. And now, the youths are also becoming farmers.

"Most of the youth who initially were just as transporters are now major suppliers of milk," he says.

To encourage more farmers to join, the cooperative has been advancing soft loans to the youth so as to enable them acquire motorbikes.

With an eye in improving the community’s future prospects, the farmers have been sponsoring bright students to study competitive courses like medicine, law, engineering, aviation and business management. The sponsored students would be expected to serve the community free for a given time once they graduate.

But even with all their progress, the farmers say the fact that they can just cool milk, and have to transport it for processing elsewhere has proved to be a bottleneck. They say most companies would buy milk at throwaway price, and then sell the final product at high prices without adding much value.

With their fortunes increasing per day, the farmers now plan to construct their own milk-processing firm.