Thursday, February 16, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 4, Part 2 - Robert's Farm (G-BIACK)

On my fourth day in Kenya, my host Samuel, co-founder of G-BIACK (Grow Biointensive Agriculture Center of Kenya), took me to visit a few farms that G-BIACK works with. The first was a wonderful farm owned by a man named Robert and his wife. This officially marks the first time I've visited a farm that borders a river where hippos live.

Robert lives in a community bordering the Athi River. However, the river water is polluted so the community uses irrigation water that flows down a hillside to them via gravity. Thus, they call their community group that works with G-BIACK "Athi Gravity." The organic group in Athi Gravity has 28 members, but now they are going around the community to recruit more members. The organic group is doing so well - better than those who use chemicals - that there is little resistance to converting to organic. To reach Athi Gravity, we parked the car and then hiked down a steep slope. I snapped pictures on the way.


This picture would make a Kenyan hungry.

Bird's nest in a tree we parked next to. There are SO MANY bird's nests in Kenya!

The view from the top.


Christmas dinner?

A view of Athi Gravity community

Once we reached Robert's farm, he began to show us around. He moved to this land in 2001 and he has five acres - a very large farm for this area. He is married with four grown children. Before he began working with G-BIACK, he grew kale, cabbage, peanuts, maize, and beans, and he raised goats. Back then, he bought hybrid seeds but now he saves open-pollinated seeds. He used to buy chemical fertilizer but now he uses compost and manure and "finds it quite good." He says using compost and manure is better than before.

Back when he used chemical fertilizer, he said, "Sometimes when there is no money [for fertilizer], the crops wouldn't grow." His crops are mainly for his own consumption, and he gets his income from selling tuberose flowers for export to the Netherlands. He did not grow them before working with G-BIACK. In the past, he sold maize, kale, spinach, and cabbage, he said. He did not make much in profit because he spent so much on inputs.

Papaya tree.

Banana tree.

Many banana trees. They provide some nice shade and put a lot of organic matter on the ground.

Robert's tilapia pond

A drained tilapia pond.

Robert's USAID sign. Love how the sign goes in even before the aid they provide really starts up. The sign is in a field of tuberoses that Robert is growing for export to the Netherlands as a cash crop.

Tuberoses in front of corn and banana trees. The tall trees in the background are likely Grevillea robusta. The trees are used as windbreaks, for income generation, and for firewood.

Robert's maize


The maize was planted in November and it is ready to harvest now in mid-February. Robert also grows sorghum, which he grinds into a flour. That is mixed with maize flour to make ugali (porridge).




There are already holes dug every several feet in this sorghum field. Robert plans to plant mulberry trees there. Then he will harvest the sorghum and plant something else while the mulberry trees are still small. He suggested that he would plant legumes, and I asked what kind he grows. One of the types of legumes grown here are lablab beans, which are called njahe. Robert said that lablab beans are very important to the Kikuyu people (the dominant ethnic group in this area). You cook lablab beans for a woman who is giving birth because it is nutritious, and you always give lablab beans to your in-laws.

Sunflowers, which he is growing to press the seeds for oil. The remains of the stalks and leaves will generate a lot of compost.

Sunflowers are a new crop for Robert. He wants to press the seeds into oil for his own consumption. Then he will combine the byproducts from the sunflower oil with byproducts from his sorghum to feed his tilapia instead of purchasing feed. The sunflowers were also planted around November or December. He is also saving the seeds from his sunflowers to replant them. During our visit, Samuel bought some sunflower seeds from Robert for G-BIACK's seed bank and instructed Robert to occasionally trade seeds with farmers in his community to bring new genes into his saved seeds.

Sunflower seedheads

Saving sunflower seeds


A row of sweet potatoes in between areas planted with tuberoses

One of Robert's hired workers, who is wearing a U.S. army shirt.

A field that was planted in maize and harvested. It has been replanted in cassava already, with no tilling. The cassava plants are tiny and hard to see.

To do zero tillage, they harvested the maize and then brought in goats to eat the remains of the crops. They slashed whatever was left, and then planted the cassava. It takes six to eight months to grow cassava, depending on the variety.

One of the baby cassava plants that was planted into the area formerly planted in maize.

A big, beautiful healthy cassava plant.

While we looked at Robert's cassava, Samuel explained to him how to tell if he had cassava mosaic virus and what to do if he found it. Currently, his plants are all healthy, but the virus has devastated cassava crops around here and some farmers have just plain stopped growing cassava.

Robert led us down to the Athi River, which is home to hippos (but not crocodiles). I stared for a few minutes, hoping to see one, but they stay under water as much as possible during the day. The come out at night to graze and they are aggressive to humans. They can also destroy a farmer's crops. Robert has a steep slope separating his farm from the river, which keeps the hippos out of his farm. He says that a man in his community was killed by a hippo a few months ago.

Athi River

We returned to the small building at the front of the farm, which is covered in passionfruit vines. Robert was eager to show off his compost pile.

The building, covered in passionfruit vines

Passionfruit, not yet ripe

Robert and Samuel in front of the compost pile

A small nursery of seedlings

A shower

One of Robert's goats.

One of the things I love about this farm and about G-BIACK is that it allows for innovation on the ground by the farmers. As Samuel gave Robert a few helpful pointers here and there, and Robert gave Samuel some of his seeds, they were helping one another improve their work. Robert is also reaching out and helping his neighbors, and he is conducting experiments of his own to find out the most successful way to grow crops. As we visited, he was planting some strawberries for the first time to see if they would be a profitable crop to grow and sell. He has some new greenhouses and he is running an experiment to compare growing tuberoses outside and in the greenhouses. If he finds that one method is more successful, he can share that knowledge with his neighbors, and Samuel can bring it to other communities.

A new greenhouse. Robert is experimenting to see if tuberoses grow better outdoors or in a greenhouse.

I asked Robert how his life has changed since going organic, since he says he has more income now that he doesn't have to spend money on chemicals. He said that he can now give money to relatives to help out when needed. For example, if they are struggling to pay their children's school fees, he can give them the money. In the past, he did not have enough money to do that.

Before we left, Samuel asked Robert to tell us about Del Monte. He said, "They spray the chemicals at night, and when we are sleeping we can feel the effects of these chemicals in the air." I asked how he felt. "Bad," he replied. Sometimes you feel nausea "and it's not a good experience." They use big machines to do the spraying, but not crop dusting planes. Robert estimates they spray about monthly, and they spray mostly during the rainy season. He suspects that the chemicals pollute the water and that the polluted water reaches his farm.

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