Blog 3: Weeks 3 and 4…News From Kenya!

Blog written by Sarifa Lakhdhir:

We have been in Kenya for just over a month now. We have settled in quite nicely with our extended Kenyan family, including those with whom we stay in Ichamara and the local villagers and farmers with whom we are working with on a daily basis. I have even learned to love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Lucky for me, I get to have them for lunch every day for the next 6 weeks!

Last Friday, we were invited to attend the Wakulima Dairy’s annual general meeting. This meeting was held on a soccer field, and all farmers of the dairy as well as the dairy’s board of directors were invited to attend. At the meeting, the board of directors updated the farmers regarding progress that was made by the association in the past year. They also commented on plans moving forward. At the end, farmers had an opportunity to ask the board questions they had regarding its plans and actions or regarding farming in general.

The dairy has done exceptionally well this year. Their product is in high demand, and they are planning on expanding the number of farmers contributing milk. They are also planning on producing yogurt in the coming years. They have been given a grant from the Nyeri county government, which will help to pay for the equipment needed to make yogurt. Sale of yogurt also has a higher return than milk – almost double! Thus, making yogurt will be a more profitable option for the dairy in addition to production of processed milk.

We visited Ruth’s farm over the weekend. Ruth is one of our Kenyan co-workers. Thus far, we have visited and worked with many smallholder dairy farmers, who typically own 1 to 2 cows that produce milk and generate income for the family. Ruth, on the other hand, grows crops for income. She showed us around her farm. She grows a variety of crops including beans, sweet potatoes, arrowroot, avocados, passion fruit, yams, pumpkin, cassava, peppers, guava, and sugar cane. She uses manure from her rabbit and goats as fertilizer for the crops. Once the crops have matured, she sells them at the market every Wednesday when people bring their crops as well as other items to sell. Luckily for us we got some passion fruits as a gift to enjoy over the remainder of the weekend.

As we were leaving for work Monday morning, we encountered several young people in white lab coats carrying coolers. We learned later on that there was an outbreak of Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) in the Mukurweini area. LSD is endemic to this region. It is contagious and is most commonly spread by biting insects. LSD results in lumps throughout the skin, mucous membranes, and internal organs as the name suggests. It also causes emaciation, enlarged lymph nodes, edema of the skin, reduced production of milk, and can be fatal leading to huge economic losses for farmers. Due to the reported outbreak of LSD, the government was sending veterinarians and veterinary technicians to vaccinate all the cows in the affected areas. People here do not vaccinate their cows regularly as a preventative measure because it can be quite expensive. When an outbreak occurs, the government subsidizes vaccination of cows in the affected areas. Unfortunately, most people wait for an outbreak because that is the only time that they are able to afford to vaccinate their cows. This is not always in the cow’s best interest because without the vaccination, it is prone to infection. So far we have not seen a case of LSD. However, we did do a follow up visit with a farmer in our study who had lost both her cow and heifer calf to LSD last September. She was having difficulty since her cow and heifer were her main source of income.

We continued visiting farms and constructing stalls this past week despite the LSD outbreak. One farm especially stood out for us. On our first visit to this farm, we were told that the cows are very shaky. As we watched them move around their pen, we saw that they were very careful with each step they took. The floor seemed very slippery, and the stalls looked lumpy and hard. The cows were covered in mud indicating that instead of staying in the stall made for them, they probably preferred to lie down in the dirty alley outside of their stalls since the alleyway had the most space. As the alley was made of cement, it seemed quite uncomfortable and painful for the cows to lie down on it. Since this was a control farm, we fixed the stalls this year and provided training on the importance of cow comfort and welfare. The farmers were very receptive to the new information as they had not realized the great importance of having a soft/dry stall not only for the cow but also for their income via increased milk production and reduced mastitis. Additionally farmers are often wary of how much extra work and cost is needed to build a new cow stall/shed and are hesitant to make changes until we explain there is little to no cost with the changes we make. Often times we use wood boards already present on farms, dig soil from surrounding hillsides, and use our own labour to make the necessary changes. We do purchase locally sourced wood shavings as bedding for stalls but farmers are advised of low/no cost alternatives such as dry leaves or hay/straw. To improve these stalls we removed some boards from the front of their stalls giving the cows more lunge space (cows need space in front of where they will lie down as they push their heads forward when they are lying down and getting back up). We had to dig up a lot of dirt to flatten and soften the stall floor. Once that was done, we added shavings on top of the dirt as bedding. As soon as we finished with the stalls, one of the cows went in and laid down. It was great to see that the cow liked the adjustments we had made to her stall! It’s not often that we get a chance to see immediately the difference our hard work makes. This also helped the farmer see the great benefit that a few changes can have for her cows.

In our farm visits, we have found last year’s treatment farms to be in different conditions, from very well maintained to not maintained at all. In order to understand better why some farmers maintained the changes made to their stalls last year, we developed a follow-up survey. We found that farmers who have kept up with maintenance have done so because they found that their cow’s milk production increased and that she got less mastitis. These farmers have spread the word to their neighbours to help them increase their production, too. Seeing results has helped many farmers realize the importance of increasing welfare and comfort of their cows: increased cow comfort and welfare leads to increased milk production and decreased risk of mastitis, which ultimately leads to higher income for their families.

On Thursday, Ephraim, another one of our Kenyan co-workers, took us to see a waterfall after our farm visits for the day were complete. He explained that the energy from the falling water is used to power a pump, which then pumps water up pipes to people’s homes. The pumps are very strong; they can push water to homes a few kilometers away, all due to energy from the waterfall!

After a week of visiting farms we headed to Meru for the weekend, which is located on the north side of Mount Kenya. There we met Jennifer, an influential lady in her community. She is one of the founding members of Farmers Helping Farmers and is heavily involved in coordinating projects in her area. She was also the head of a women’s group whose mission was to better the livelihood of the community through the sale of crops and distribution of water tanks. She has done a lot in her community and is greatly respected. We also met Emily and Krista, two veterinary students from the Atlantic Veterinary College in PEI working for Farmers Helping Farmers in Meru. They are starting up a similar project regarding cow comfort, welfare, and nutrition in Meru. We spent time with Jennifer, Emily, and Krista learning more about their projects.

On Saturday, we did a day hike on Mount Kenya. We hiked approximately 18 kilometers to Lake Alice and Nithi Falls. Although the hike was long, the views were breathtaking and worth the hard work! The next day, Jennifer took us to church. Church is a very important part of most Kenyans’ Sundays. The people were very welcoming and made us feel right at home. Jennifer had us go up and introduce ourselves as her “Canadian daughters”. Part of church consisted of an auction of food donated by people. As a welcome gesture to us and to show their appreciation, many members of the church bought items from the auction for us. We went home with a lot of cabbage and green beans!

If there’s one thing I’ve observed from being here, it is that even though the people are not rich and do not own much, they are always friendly, welcoming, and generous to everyone around them. They live a very basic life. They do not have the luxuries we have back home in Canada, yet they are always willing to help their families, neighbours, and friends. Their income is often dependent on milk from their cows or crops from the field. Travel is by foot most of the time. Even though they do not have enough for themselves, they welcome visitors with open arms and offer them chai (tea), lunch, and fruits to thank them and to show them their gratitude. The great sense of community makes being here so enjoyable and such a wonderful learning experience. I am so thankful to have been able to work alongside our Kenyan colleagues. I am looking forward to the weeks ahead, and I hope that I can use what I have learned and experienced here in my life back home in Canada.

  1. Market at Ichamara:1
  1. Two of the stalls we fixed:

Before: 2 Before

After: She’s lying down!2 After

  1. Waterfall that powers the water pump. Left to right: Sarifa, Shauna, Priscilla, Mira, Maggie, Ephraim.3
  1. At Jennifer’s house in Meru. Left to right: Maggie, Mira, Krista, Emily, Jennifer, Shauna, Sarifa.

4