I’m sitting in the hotel of a Sihk temple in Eldoret, Kenya. Eldoret is right off of the Rift Valley, on the northern part of the Equator near the border with Uganda. I am on my first work trip out of Nairobi. I left Monday morning with my boss, a women from a company that does soil sampling which we will include in our Backpack, a group from Elyon Trust who will be opening up our next four franchises, a women from Root Capital an impact investment firm, and a group from Equity Bank here in Kenya which is looking to finance farmers so they can buy our Backpack (products). The trip was to the Eldoret training farm (franchise). It is our most successful and looks great! It really was impressive to see the difference in the training farm, using the technologies from the Backpack and the other farms around. Nearly all the farms you see are less than 5 acres (with a few large tract farms around, mainly for Maize, Roses and wheat). And the man who runs that franchise has done an amazing job. Equity Bank was thoroughly impressed and we even had some local farmers who had come to see it and by the end of the day were like giddy children wanting to buy a Backpack. And honestly that’s what its like, everyone who sees the farm can’t believe it and really wants to get involved. The only deterrent is the price. At a little over $500 for a Backpack that serves an acre, that’s beyond the average smallholder farmers immediate budget. But that’s where Equity Bank comes in, and what is so exciting is that they are committed to helping smallholder farmers, to focus only the lowest interest rates possible, nearly a third lower than the average interest rates in Kenya. Let me quickly review what the Backpack is: the purpose is to aggregate green technologies that are solely designed for smallholder farmers with around 1 acre. It can packed for a ¼, ½ and full acre and includes the following: irrigation, (remember nearly all of these farmers rely on rain water, which is exposes them to a lot of risk, risk that can be mitigated by a miniscule amount of irrigation all year, instead of only growing during the rainy season), a soil testing bag that will be sent back to Nairobi to determine the quality of the soil and what needs to be added (much of the soil has been nutrient depleted by decades of growing the same crop), a certified seedpacket (bad seeds here is a big problem), a water tank, Fusion Nutrition (soil and crop protection program), 8-12 liter chemical sprayer (no class-1 pesticides used) and ICON (WHO approved to prevent the spread of malaria), along with our comprehensive training manual. We also require that the farmer go through a day of training on how to properly install the irrigation and use the equipment in the backpack. It is in our best interest to ensure that the farmers know how to properly use what they’ve been given and that it works. Remember Backpack Farm is a Social Enterprise, that means we are For-Profit, but also For-Social Good. If one farmer buys and loves it and makes money, he will tell his friend and they will come to us as well. The training farms also offer over 40 training courses for only a few cents, these courses are taught by licensed Kenya Agronomists and cover anything and everything a farmer may need to know. In the area of just this one farm in Eldoret, without any media exposure or official opening, word has spread like wildfire about the farm. People are farmers here and when they see something that works they know it.
And now about the trip. We drove four hours north west from Nairobi in a car that was smoking nearly all the time. Once we figured out it was from excess oil we were good, but that didn’t quite keep out the smoke. The landscape was amazing, right after leaving Nairobi we drove along a highway whose edge led down to the Rift Valley. It is an impressive expanse, that opens for kilometers around, just dropping off into these amazing plains and ridges. We drove on and watched the landscape become very very green, changing flora every so often. As we began to ascend we hit highways (two lane) that had been built for 40-60 ton trucks but had 60-80 ton trucks driving on it (they knew that would happen, but it was cheaper to build). So the lanes would have wagon like ruts where the semi tires were, making every lane change (which happened often as they swerved out and around trucks and cars) a very bumpy ride.
I stayed the night in Eldoret to work with the Franchise Manager and will stay another night. It has been great discussing with him the farm and how its run, seeing as I will be opening four more of them within a month. I have been learning lots about the farming culture (which is very very important) as well as the different tribes of Kenya. Eldoret saw a lot of election violence in 2007, it is a place that is majority Kalenjin, but had a Kikuyu population and because of politics, horribly fighting broke out. I was speaking with the agronomist, and he was talking to me a lot about it. He said one day you hear yelling and you know it has started. Even men who are educated, have been to school, have large houses, they go wild; others have no choice. He said, we wake up in the morning after no sleep trying to protect our house and farm and there is a group outside. They say “we are going that way,” and it is a command. You have no option, you must go with them to fight. If you don’t go and you try to run, they will burn your house down, there is nothing you can do. 2007 was hard, he said.
It is fascinating learning about the many different tribes in Kenya, so many different languages and customs and looks, there are some very distinct physical characteristics for some of the tribes. The agronomist was teaching me some Kalenjin, which was fun to learn, but it also made me realize I should focus on Swahili and pick some of that up, because if not I’ll by try to learn 100 languages! He also asked me, as we walked around the community of farms near our farm, “what do you do with roses?” (there are many many flower farms in this area and south in Naivasha, they supply the majority of the Roses and flowers to Europe and the US). I explained a little bit the romantic thing and how some girls like it. He just laughed, he said “you guys are funny, here they mean nothing. You give one to a girl and she says, ‘why you give me this, it ten days it will be dead, what can I do with this!’” It was a fun little conversation. Also when we were walking we past these two little kids, they stopped and looked at me, and one says to the other (I was told) “who is he, what is he doing here?” They were about four years old. Most people stare a little bit, but the kids are great. They usually (in the rural areas) haven’t seen a white person and aren’t sure what to think. Or if they have, like when I was driving away from the farm, they go crazy! School had just gotten out and there was maybe a hundred 5-7 year olds walking down the road all spread out, the first one to see me yells out “Muzungu! Muzungu!” (White person, white person) and I heard this hilarious little echo all down the line of kids, muzungu, muzungu, and they would run and wave and jump up and down. Its different when I see older people though, everyone is always polite but I can’t even imagine the racism they have seen and felt by whites in their lives and from a distance I am no different, which is a difficult thing to think about. This place has a long messed up history.
Tomorrow I’m off to Naivasha and then back to Nairobi. There should be about a handful of people from SIS (School of International Studies) from UOP that will be in Nairobi on Thursday and we are going to see if we can meet up!
Kwa heri! (swahili)