July 27, 2012

By E. Niven

The challenges are daunting for farmers in Ngorano, Kenya: lack of fertilizer, poor quality seeds, inconsistent water availability and rudimentary knowledge of agronomic practices. Monsanto employee Zellipah Githui knows the world of subsistence farming all too well. She started farming in Ngorano as a small child and remembers caring for her younger brother at the same time.

“In my village, the women were the farmers. In our culture, farming falls to women because it’s a mother’s responsibility or extension of feeding her family,” Githui said. “However, poor planting methods and seed selection have always been challenging, leading to low yields even in seasons with good rainfall.”

During the past two years, Githui has returned to her village from her job in St. Louis to help improve the lives of the women farmers and their families. She came armed with her own funds and provided hybrid corn seeds, fertilizers and the services of an agronomist to 16 women farmers. By starting small, the program was the perfect example of a grassroots effort, growing based on its own success and creating a “buzz” in the village.

The women named the project “Gold Finger,” on the premise that women’s fingers can produce the equivalent of gold if they have the right tools and resources. Coincidentally, the project launched on the eve of one of the worst droughts to hit that region of Africa in 60 years, driving many in the Horn of Africa to refugee camps and to starvation. These resilient women fared better than most.

On the southern slopes of Mt. Kenya, the village women farm on small parcels of an acre or two with primitive tools for cultivation. Failure in subsistence farming has immediate and critical effects on those who depend on the food. The farmers consider it a success if they produce enough for their families to eat and some to sell.

Mercy Githaiga, a 48-year-old mother of four, was the most successful farmer after the first year. She planted 60 tomato and kale seedlings and used drip irrigation. After 20 years of farming, this was the first time she produced enough that she didn’t have to purchase vegetables for her family.

Her friend, Esther Wanja, a 66-year-old mother of six, learned after 40 years of farming, the “pure stand” method was superior and provided enough beans for her family for six months. Both women agreed that planting at the right time, incorporating manure and using the correct amount of inorganic fertilizer were vital to their success.

Githui pointed out that prior to the agronomist working with the women, area farmers planted crops intermingled with one another. Beans were planted under corn. Potatoes sprouted under beans. This led to the disruptive practice of harvesting and damaging the remaining crops as well as crops shading one another as they matured, weakening the yield for both. “Pure stand” was a novel idea that met with some resistance until the harvest proved the worth of these practices in farming.

“When you introduce new ideas that fundamentally change the way people have practiced their craft for decades, it’s good to do it on a small scale and let the dramatic results spread the word,” Githui said.

While the corn crop suffered because of lack of rainfall, the tomato crops proved that with the right input investments, including drip irrigation, the women can move beyond subsistence.

In the second year, Githui has grown the scope of the project to include goats and poultry. She also has the support of co-workers and has filed paperwork to turn Project Gold Finger into a not-for-profit organization, Rural Women Development Initiative, dedicated to improving livelihoods in rural Kenya. This includes teaching better farming practices to Kenyan subsistence farmers and initially supplying them with better seed, fertilizer and the means to improve their watering techniques.

Success in farming is not based on a single crop. For these women in Kenya, it will come with consistently increasing yields borne of new tools, methods and knowledge.

Originally published June 27, 2012 by Monsantoco