Originally published on November 12, 2014.
Many farmers thought Susan Mbitis was crazy when they heard she was opening up her farm to demonstrate maize conservation for cattle fodder. Why would anyone want to waste precious maize on animals, when so many people were food insecure?
But as one of the most influential trainer-of-trainers (TOTs) involved with the Land O’Lakes USDA-funded Kenya Food for Progress (KFP) program
, and one of the few women who owns her own farm, Mbitis has long taken pride in challenging assumptions, and proving that dairy farming can serve as a road out of poverty – even in the face of drought.
“When I can show people how I have achieved record milk yields in one of the driest parts of the country, just through proper feeding, milking, breeding and silage conservation, they start overcoming their fears and opening up their minds to doing things differently,” explained Mbitis, whose farm is in rural Wamunyu, a dry and dusty town in Kenya’s Eastern Province.
As milk is 87 percent water, drought can have a detrimental impact on milk yields. But, compared to some farmers who only collect five or 10 liters of milk per day from each animal, Mbitis says her techniques have enabled her to collect as many as 46 liters from one animal.
Since 2007, the KFP program has been working to enhance the productivity and market efficiency of players all along the dairy value chain – from smallholder farmers and cooperatives, to milk traders and processors – exponentially improving rural incomes through milk sales.
Local Kenyan farmers like Mbitis – who first received training from Land O’Lakes in 1999 under the previous Kenya Dairy Development Program (KDDP) – have been essential conduits as TOTs, ensuring that knowledge of improved production methods reaches as many people as possible.
After learning about above-ground silage techniques last year through KFP, Mbitis was able to successfully ensile 55 tons of maize, which she will open up after the December harvest. This will provide her cattle with the steady nourishment they need to produce large quantities of milk year-round.
“I opened up my farm, and people came from hundreds of kilometers away to learn my techniques,” Mbitis explained. “I was able to show them that if they saved their maize for consumption, there’s only so much they can eat before it gets spoiled. But if we use the maize for silage, it has a far greater lasting value.”
Beyond sharing with a nearly religious conviction her special formula for when and how to milk cows, the best ways of feeding them, and encouraging small-scale farmers to join cooperatives or other self-help groups, Mbitis has been working to expand the ranks of farmers willing to become breeders like her.
That’s the most important thing: people must pass down their knowledge to others. Instead of hearing my neighbors complain that that the country is filled with poverty, my goal is to help them see the future in another way.
Explaining that local farmers never effectively learned breeding techniques from British settlers, Mbitis went out of her way to become a breeder. She learned much of what she knows through trainings facilitated by Land O’Lakes during both the KDDP and KFP programs.
Mbitis believes that breeding can provide farmers with a more reliable source of income than milk, considering there are no processing facilitates in Eastern Province, which means that farmers must sell their raw milk at wildly fluctuating prices, depending on supply and demand, which is impacted by drought.
“I’m now trying to teach everyone I can about breeding, how they can pool their resources to collectively acquire artificial insemination kits, how to capture a cow in heat, how to minimize inbreeding, and why they should register their heifers,” she explained. Mbitis is currently training 50 farmers on breeding techniques, and has already helped in calving 300 heifers.
Although Mbitis is now sought out by farmers who are willing to pay for her services, most critical is that they commit to training others. “That’s the most important thing: people must pass down their knowledge to others. Instead of hearing my neighbors complain that the country is filled with poverty, my goal is to help them see the future in another way.”
Carrying Training Forward: Raphael Muvilas
Raphael Muvilas was inspired by Susan Mbitis to become a trainer-of-trainers
True to the goal of passing down learning from one farmer to another, Raphael Muvilas became a trainer-of-trainers in silage after he learned the technique from Susan Mbitis.
Located along roughshod roads about 40 kilometers away from the Mbitis’ farm, Muvilas has already trained at least 50 farmers in silage conservation on his farm in Mwala town – although he uses sorghum rather than maize.
“I used to sell maize as my primary crop, but my income was fairly poor,” Muvilas recalled. “Things started to improve once I began raising dairy cows, and I was able to make 30 shillings (about 35 cents) for each liter of milk I sold. Still, it was hard to negotiate a good price for milk on my own.”
Things improved further for Muvilas, once he began attending Land O’Lakes training sessions on dairy cooperative development and feed conservation, and had a chance to go on field trips to meet with progressive farmers like Susan Mbitis.
“All of this exposure to new practices encouraged me to work with my neighbors and register as a dairy cooperative, so that we could maximize our resources by selling our milk together,” Muvilas explained.
Muvilas is now the chairman of the Mothethene Makutana Dairy Cooperative, a group with 67 members, 40 of whom are actively supplying milk. By pooling their resources, they typically sell each liter of milk for 45 shillings (53 cents), which is making a formidable impact on everyone’s incomes.