Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 17, Part 4 - Dominion Farms, Part 4

On my 17th day in Kenya, I visited Dominion Farms, a U.S.-owned enormous rice farm that sits in between Bondo and Siaya Districts in Nyanza Province. Below is the last part of the transcript and photos from our tour.

The people with me on the tour were my hosts, Amy Lint and Malaki Obado, along with their baby, and our guide. When we left off, we were at the weir, talking about Dominion's use of water from the Yala River. The guide told us about a treatment process they use where they allow the sediment to settle out and then add chlorine to the water. Within Dominion, they have piped water from the river water that they've treated - a huge and rare luxury in this part of Kenya.

Then she mentioned they have some tilapia ponds that hold more than 60,000 fish. She said we couldn't see those ponds, but we could see some other ponds.

Me: Do you know their schedule for land reclamation? What's the total area they plan to reclaim.

Guide: I don't have access to that information.

Me: I am interested in how big this will become and in what year.

Guide: Well, you know Busia? We are going to go up to Busia.

Amy Lint: Whoa!

Guide: So that's like really huge.

You can see how big that would be yourself, but we found out later that she was referring to Busia District, not the town itself, which means it's not as big of an area as Amy first thought:

The marker shows Yala Swamp, where Dominion is now located. It's in between Siaya and Bondo Districts and it includes Lake Kanyaboli, which is home to many very valuable fish species that used to live in Lake Victoria before the introduction of the Nile Perch. Busia is straight north, near the Uganda border.

Guide: Calvin [the owner of Dominion] has a house here, but he comes once every month if he doesn't have any other engagements.

Then the conversation turned to some ponds we were passing.

Guide: So these are some of our green ponds. We have very many ponds, yeah? But we won't visit these ponds, we'll visit the ones in the back.

Malaki Obado: Why do you call it green ponds?

Guide: Because it's on bare land. There is no concrete. The modern ponds, they have concrete down there.

MO: What are you growing in the green ponds?

Guide: We have tilapia and catfish.

MO: OK, together in the same pond?

Guide: No.

MO: If it's a tilapia pond, it's just a tilapia pond?

Guide: Yeah, we actually just have the male fish alone, the female fish alone, unless you want them to brood, then we also have the fingerlings and the mothers. We have separate ponds for every stage and every sex.

Me: What do you feed them?

Guide: OK, for the fish that - OK, normally wild fish would eat, like, insects, little things they find in the water, mud, vegetation but for our fish, we make feeds for them at the fish feed mill. We make it using various material that have high protein, especially.

Me: To make them grow fast?

Guide: Yes.

Me: Do they grow that high protein material here or do they buy it or import it?

Guide: We buy it.

At this point, the conversation turned to the training center. The guide said that they train people on their rice growing techniques. Right now, there was a group of Nigerians being trained and they would go home to start up a Dominion Farm in Nigeria, owned by the same company. But, she said that the Nigerian government was actually paying for the training.

Guide: The people were selected by the government. They are young people. Young people who are selected to learn so they can go and start it themselves.

AL: Are they learning about riding the machinery?

Guide: Yes, and also growing the rice, how to prepare the land, and also many, many - how to mill the rice, package it, and sell it. And how to run the administration, everything.

Me: Do you know how much rice is sold each year?

Guide: Yeah, tons, yes.

Me: How much?

Guide: I don't have the figures off hand, but it's pretty good.

AL: So, do you think they're going to start exporting to India or Dubai as well?

Guide: Not right now. Until when we reach Busia -

AL: You can start going now to the Arab world.

Guide: Yeah.

AL: Because there's a big market for rice.

Guide: Exactly. We were surprised by the demand. Our rice is very nice, tastes good, and it's affordable.

AL: So that'll be all swampland up to Busia?

Guide: I don't know how it looks all the way up to Busia.

AL: I didn't know the swamp went all the way up to Busia.

MO: When she says Busia, she's talking about Busia District. There, the river goes. It kind of touches Bondo, Siaya, and there's Busia kind of at the end.

Guide: So the river is meandering like this, yeah? So in between those meanders, that's the area we are talking about.

AL: So is there a plan to start Dominion Uganda? The Nile and all that?

Guide: I don't know if that was really being thought of.

AL: Who does all the sorting and grading?

Guide: That is at the rice mill, but unfortunately we cannot enter the rice mill. So right now we will go to the rice mill.

[Amy talked her into it later and we did go in]

AL: So this, post-harvest - is it machine too? Or people are doing it?

Guide: What?

AL: Sorting, grading.

Guide: Everything is done by machine, milling, grading, even packaging. The one thing that I see is manpowered is maybe baling. You put the rice in bales, you put it on pallet, then you carry it to the warehouse, but everything else is just machine.

AL: Oh ok. So even sorting rice and such - it's done by machine?

Guide: Yeah.

AL: How do you feel about that? Because there is such a potential to give a lot of jobs to people but it's all done by machine. And at a time when we need jobs. People are ready to work but so many jobs are given to machine.

Guide: OK, um, it's true. Yeah, okay. We really employ very few people.

AL: Like 400 people on all this land? That's really very few people. And even, a quarter, 25 percent of that is security.

Guide: No, the security firm is separate.

Me: A contractor?

AL: Oh, ok.

Guide: Yes. And we work with contractors mainly. Like the cleaners, security.

The cleaners just clean a few white coats they have people wear when working in the mill.

Me: Do you notice many mosquitoes?

Guide: Yeah. Eh, mosquitoes are minimal. I think I am used to it now. Even during the day you can get bitten.

Me: Really. Do they spray for mosquitoes?

Guide: No. But maybe they used to spray at some point. The mosquitoes are really reducing.

Me: After harvest, if you are not going to let the same plants produce a second crop, how long before you plant another crop. Do you leave it to rest?

Guide: Yes. It rests for some time, depending on the nutrients, the analysis.

Me: Like a year, or a month?

Guide: No, it can't be a year. Several months.

Me: So when you say there are four crops a year, it's not four crops in the same field.

Guide: No.

Me: Do you know how many crops you could get in a year in the same field?

Guide: It could be like two, maximum three.

Me: That sounds much more normal. When I heard four I was like 'what?'

At this point, Malaki asked about a machine alongside the harvester. The guide began to explain it and I realized I'd seen the same thing in cornfields in Iowa. You get a machine to take the harvest directly from the harvester and carry it to the mill, and then the harvester can continue working without ever stopping. The guide confirmed that this was the case.

Guide: And also, it minimizes spillages. Human labor, it provides for many people to eat, but mechanization is highly efficient. Like, if we had to hire people to cut the rice, it would be so expensive.

Me: How much would have you have to pay them?

Guide: OK, that is maybe casual labor.

No answer. I wouldn't be surprised if it was something like 200 shillings - $2.40.

AL: At least you harvest the bananas by hand?

Guide: Yes.

AL: There's no banana plucking machines [laughs]

MO: This is jatropha, can you tell me about this?

Guide: It is a project that got started. We were supposed to start producing the fuel, but I don't know. It stalled.

Jatropha, a biofuel crop. They tried it and abandoned it here. They've tried and abandoned many things, including a honey project and a poultry project. They are now working on a soybean project to see if it works as something they might continue in the future.

AL: All this machinery came from the U.S.?

Guide: Yes, by sea.

We finally arrived at the mill, and I took a photo before they told me I wasn't supposed to take pictures.

Ditto on the tilapia ponds. If you look at the corner of the pond, there's an interesting bird sitting there - that's why I took the picture.

The tilapia operation was disgusting. The ponds are made by digging the earth out and then adding a pipe for water to flow in and one to take the water out so that the water flows all the time. Because tilapia are native to this part of the world, I doubt the water needs to be heated like it does in the U.S.

My recording of our visit to the tilapia pond isn't clear. Basically, when the baby tilapia are born, they are transferred into a pond where they are given a hormone that changes all the females to males. They remain there for one month. After that, all of the fish are male. The reason they told us this is because "in fish, we believe that males grow faster." It sounded to me like they make them all male is so that they don't mate. If the females were devoting energy to breeding, then they would grow slower. I've also heard something about how having fertile males and females result in a crowded pond with lots of small fish instead of fewer big ones.

The all male tilapia are fed a feed made in the mill, basically from cheap calories and some vitamin/mineral supplements. This feed is different from the one given to the fish used for breeding, since - if I understand it right - it would make the fish actually too fat to breed.

There are 60 ponds in the part of the farm we visited. They are building more ponds on the other side of the farm. My recording is very hard to hear, and I could not catch how many ponds they plan to build total or how many fish each pond holds, but they plan to make an awful lot of ponds, and each pond holds thousands of fish.

From the fish ponds, we went to the mill. In the mill, the machines do everything. The rice is first sorted to remove large debris and smaller debris. The small debris is sold as animal feed. The husk is removed and used as a mulch. The bran and germ are removed and sold as animal feed. Then the white rice is polished and graded and packaged. Grading is based on the length of the grain.

Finally, as we left, Amy and Malaki bought some fish and rice for dinner and I took a photo of one of the nearby houses. There are communities on either side of the farm, right up to the gates. Since the farm diverted the river, they have made available a few canals of water for locals to use for washing, or drinking, or whatever. You see local people gathering water on either side of the farm. God knows what's in that water.

A house just outside of Dominion on the Siaya side.

A community just outside of Dominion on the Bondo side.

That night, the family ate the tilapia and rice for dinner. I didn't. I'm not eating something that was born female and switched to male with hormones. Nor do I want to eat anything that got sprayed with pesticides from an airplane. Malaki's dad remarked that the locally caught wild tilapia taste sweeter than the fish from Dominion. I held my tongue and didn't tell him how the tilapia at Dominion were produced. I was his guest and did not want to ruin his meal.

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