BONDO DISTRICT, KENYA – As they walk around their village, most people here see weeds. Amy Lint and Malaki Obado see a world of possibility.
Obado points out a tree that looks dead but isn’t. It’s Moringa oleifera, a plant sold as a superfood in health stores in the U.S. “You know moringa?” he asks.“It’s good cattle feed, it’s a good water purifier… and the leaves are also edible.”
Every few feet, they stop, pointing out other local plants that serve as foods, medicines, building materials, and more. Akeyo, or African cabbage (Cleome gynandra), Sisal, used to make rope or as a building material; Kilimanjaro basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum), a medicinal herb and natural mosquito repellent. These and more grow abundantly here. All can withstand the long dry periods this area suffers from, and many can be harvested and sold for a profit in the local market.
“The advantage of many of the traditional vegetables is that they are weeds,” Lint says. “People can be a little bit loose about their care and then find that they’ll come up with the rains.”
Lint and Obado, her husband, think Kenyans can manage these weeds, er, traditional vegetables, like a crop. Their new nonprofit, Grow Strong, aims to promote local agricultural production using traditional crops and methods, known in NGO circles as “food sovereignty.” They hope such work will help reduce poverty here in Bondo District, a poor area where Obado is from and where his extended family remains.
The couple came back to Kenya in January to build up Grow Strong. Lint had gained national recognition for her work with refugees in the U.S., and the family lived a comfortable life in San Diego. But they had come to the U.S. so Lint could finish a graduate degree, with intent to return to Kenya, where they feel they can be of greater help.
A house made of sticks and mud
Moving back to Kenya means living in a two-room home made of sticks and mud. They have electricity, but no running water. Obado gets up at 5 a.m. to plow fields behind an ox team. Lint washes clothes using bar soap in a plastic tub, shooing thirsty goats from her wash water. Their children, one and three, struggle with their new diet, primarily made up of foods their grandparents grow. “I’m hungry, Mama,” Amy’s daughter Mida complains several times a day. “I want bread, Mama.” She has plenty to eat, but like any American kid, she’s not thrilled about kale at nearly every meal.
There’ve been other bumps, too, like malaria. One night both her one-year-old son and three-year-old daughter threw up in the bed the family shares. The neighbors think she and her husband were crazy to leave America for to a rural village in Kenya. Knowing Kenyan world views, she suspects locals think they returned because they failed in America.
In fact, even before they left Kenya they had built a Grow Strong learning center, thanks to a U.S. Ambassador’s Self-Help Fund grant. An enterprising neighbor turned it into a small gym during their absence. They are renovating the building to open the Bondo Local Food Hub, which will house their offices, seed library, local video resources and a community kitchen space with processing equipment. They plan to pair American interns with local university students.
“It’s a learning – not training – center…”
Stimulating growth, not growing stimulants
Grow Strong’s native push bucks a wave of crops and technologies from industrialized nations, funded by philanthropists, government programs, and NGOs. Often, such groups ignore local vegetables, because the development programs encourage Kenyans to produce export crops, and Western consumers don’t recognize traditional African vegetables. Coffee, tea, and cut flowers comprise some of Kenya’s top agricultural exports. “The prime lands of Kenya are being chewed up to grow stimulants for the West,” says Obado.
The Kenyan government subsidizes tractor rentals and a World Bank program assists farmers in purchasing agrochemicals.
Locals have mixed feelings about the new methods. William Oluoch, a 22-year-old orphaned as a teenager, now provides for a family of eleven (himself, his wife, four children, and five siblings). He prefers to plow with an ox team, because tractors invert the topsoil and subsoil, eventually reducing crop growth. As for agrochemicals, he says (with Malaki Obado translating) “you can see some one-time results from using the chemical fertilizers. I prefer using the farmyard manure because when I use the chemical fertilizers, the land is spoiled so if you use it then you’ll always have to use it.”
New ways, old ways
Care for the Earth and BAMA, two small, local agricultural development organizations, encourage farmers to raise “grade” livestock: foreign breeds like Alpine goats or Friesian cows. These produce more milk or produce meat faster than local breeds. But local farmers see them as entailing more work and risk than local breeds. For instance, they need to be kept in barns, to help avoid tick-borne diseases that don’t affect native breeds.
James Odero raises only ‘grade’ animals. He says it’s because he has more money than his neighbors, but it is also true that he and his sons have veterinary experience and know how to treat sick animals.
Lint and Obado realize they must show local farmers immediate, tangible benefits to their work in order to gain their trust. They’ve started purchasing sesame seeds from farmers to press into oil with their oil press. They’re looking for a market for the oil, so local farmers can profit from selling sesame oil themselves. They are also identifying local gardeners to help them with a seed saving effort for local, traditional seeds. And they have a honey centrifuge that local beekeepers can use to extract honey from honeycombs. Since bees do most of the work, Obado sees honey as an ideal production food for people living with HIV/AIDS, prominent in Bondo District.
“It was almost a calling to come back here,” Lint says. “The traditional knowledge is slowly disappearing and we need to make sure it is captured before it disappears. Some of the stuff, if it goes, you won’t be able to get it back.”