Originally published on November 12, 2014.
Joseph and Pauline Njeru never imagined that success would temporarily displace them from their house. But, as their home-based yoghurt business flourished to become one of the leading brands in Kenya, they realized they needed to move to an apartment and build a larger factory.
Joseph and Pauline Njeru
Originally from Nairobi and trained as accountants, the couple still finds it amusing that they found prosperity and a means to transform their neighbors’ lives by leaving their ‘respectable city jobs’ to become farmers in the Eastern Province town of Embu.
But through their expansive vision, initiative and the training provided by Land O’Lakes International Development’s USDA-funded Kenya Food for Progress (KFP) Program
, the Njerus have become trailblazers in their community, employing 40 full-time staff, pioneering organic farming, and even breeding their own special brand of cattle.
Although KFP’s overall goal is to help smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods through dairy development, the program uses a range of methods to improve productivity and milk marketing, develop the cold chain and cooperative systems, foster cottage dairy industries like yoghurt, strengthen access to finance, and develop water conservation schemes to mitigate the effects of drought.
“Accounting was the most boring, limiting job in the world,” recalled Joseph, whose father gifted the couple with their first cow when they got married in 1989. “But it helped me understand how to build a business. I saw that as I increased the size of my herd, I could increase our profits, without additional overhead and labor costs.”
Although the couple realized early on that they could reap the greatest profit by making value-added products like yoghurt, their first attempts weren’t entirely successful. “Kenya was a virgin market for yoghurt back in 2002. We overproduced and the market couldn’t handle it. So, we decided it would be safer to return to Nairobi.”
But when Pauline lost her job in 2007 and the yoghurt market began picking up, the Njerus moved back to Embu to give their dream another go. It was at this point that they first encountered Land O'Lakes, and began learning how to improve productivity – before becoming trainers of trainers themselves.
An Aspen employee chops stored silage for feed.
“I thought the KFP trainers were crazy when I first heard them talking about storing fodder for even one week, because Napier grass goes bad so quickly. I was actually so scared to open up the silage after 21 days that I waited a full month,” Joseph recalled. “But when I finally gathered up my courage and saw that I had produced 2,000 kilos of excellent fodder that would last me months, I realized this would solve many of my problems with dairy farming.”
With advice and training from Land O’Lakes, the Njerus were exposed to a range of techniques that improved their productivity. They learned how to produce biogas from cow waste, which they are using to power their yoghurt factory. They began feeding their pigs with excess milk to eliminate waste. They received training on milk quality and standards, and they even learned about improved yoghurt marketing techniques.
Importantly, they were also exposed to artificial insemination techniques by KFP staff, and began breeding their own Friesian heifers that they brand as Aspens. But, instead of selling them, they remarkably realized that the best model – from both a business and local economic development perspective – would be to give their cows away.
“Our current objective is to upgrade local farmers’ cows. They pay us back with some of their milk proceeds, and we use that to make our yoghurt,” Joseph explained. “But we’re also passing on all of our training, because we don’t want there to be a vacuum in our community when Land O’Lakes leaves. We want to fill that vacuum. If people receive a superior cow, they will treat in a superior way.”
An Aspen Orchids employee affixes yoghurt labels at the makeshift factory set up in the Njeru’s home
The Njerus are still astounded by their growing success, and the impact they are making on others. Beginning with two cows and a capacity to produce 100 liters of yogurt in 2002, they now have 31 cows, a capacity to produce 2,000 liters, and their strawberry, vanilla and unflavored yoghurt is sold in 25 percent of Kenya. When their new factory is complete, they will have the capacity to produce 5,000 liters – and will finally be able to move back into their old home.
“We are using the model of Equity Bank,” Joseph added, speaking of the microfinance institution that has become one of Kenya’s leading commercial banks. “If you give a person a cow that’s producing 20 liters of milk, it will pay for itself in four months. We know that our milk suppliers will remain loyal, we will save the expense of milking so many cows ourselves, and our neighbors can build up their herds and incomes.”
Not content with resting on their laurels, the Njerus recently began farming chickens, rabbits, pigs, tilapia and goats, and they are planning on opening an organic health food outlet that can expand dietary diversity in their community. They also have a vision for producing other value-added products, including cheese and butter, with a similar model that engages other local farmers.
Despite all of their success, and their backgrounds in accounting, the Njerus find it nearly impossible to calculate all they’ve earned through dairy, or the prosperity they’ve brought to others.
“I don’t know if we could count it all up, because we keep reinvesting every shilling we earn on our farm,” Pauline laughed. “But at this point, we’ve nearly reached our goal of being able to pay each of our 40 employees more than we earned as accountants in Nairobi, and I think we’ll exceed that by the end of the year.”