Mary Rono: A Cooperative Leader Advancing Food Security and Gender Equity

Originally published on November 7, 2014.

The lush green fields of Kenya's Rift Valley are home to thousands of small-scale dairy farmers like Mary Rono. Initially selling her milk as an individual producer, Mary and others like were forced to peddle their milk to informal traders who paid low prices and infrequently picked up their milk. But, with the assistance of USAID and Land O’Lakes International Development, Mary Rono is now heading a cooperative in a community that once shunned female leadership, and farmers across her community are finally enjoying the profits they deserve.

Mary Rono was able to surmount gender biases in her community to be elected the chairperson of Koitogos Dynamic Dairy Cooperative Society
Living in Kiboment, near the town of Kitale, Mary Rono turned her attention to managing her family’s herd of dairy cattle when she retired from her day job. As a novice farmer, Mary faced many challenges managing her small herd. “I took my early retirement and decided to concentrate on dairy farming. I practiced on the job because I didn’t have the right skills,” she explained.

Mary’s interest in pursuing dairy farming full-time was first piqued in 2004, after she visited a dairy cooperative in Nyala town that was receiving assistance from the now-completed Kenya Dairy Development Program, which was managed by Land O’Lakes International Development. “I spent two nights in farmers’ homes so that I could see their activities. I learned something from how they kept their dairy cows.  I learned how they benefitted from their cooperative society.  They had a cooling system. There was a veterinary doctor’s office. I envied their style of work, and I came back to my home with a burning heart.”

But since she was not part of a producer group at the time, Mary only earned 18 shillings (US $0.17) a liter, had limited access to productivity-enhancing inputs and no guaranteed market at which to sell her milk. In 2009, she learned about the USAID Kenya Dairy Sector Competitiveness Program (KDSCP) operated in partnership Land O’Lakes International Development from one of the program’s Artificial Insemination (AI) technicians, as well as about the assistance KDSCP could provide to improve production and milk marketing.

In 2009, Mary formed the Koitogos Dairy Dynamic Self-Help Group with 15 people. But the fact that she was a woman forced her to address the community’s long-standing gender biases head-on. “We are from the Nandi tribe, and because of cultural beliefs, men don’t allow women to lead. When I first spoke to members of my community about coming together to form a dairy cooperative society, they kind of listened to me, because most of them didn’t do dairy farming. But to some extent, they wondered how I would lead them through such a big enterprise.”

A Koitogos Dynamic Dairy Cooperative Society member's milk is weighed. Members now earn 31 shillings per liter compared to about 18 shillings before.
“As I mobilized the members and told them about what I saw in Nyala, I challenged them that ‘why don’t we come together and learn more about the dairy cow?’ I did not think that they were going to elect me as a leader - I understand their cultural beliefs whereby a woman is not supposed to lead men. But I insisted, I persisted, and they accepted the idea of forming a group,” she said.

With the support of USAID KDSCP and Land O’Lakes, the Koitogos Dairy Dynamic Self-Help Group was registered as a full-fledged Cooperative Society in February 2011, and Mary Rono was elected its chairperson. Koitogos now has 350 members and bulks over 1,000 litres of milk per day.
 
By working together collectively as a cooperative and bulking their milk, farmers in Mary’s community are now experiencing a vastly improved quality of life. “We have are now earning 31 shillings (US $0.30) per liter, and we have been able to do a lot with the profits we get from the dairy. We are able to contribute to the school fees of our children. We are able to pay our loans with ease.”

In addition to financial gains, the members of Koitogos dairy cooperative society have also learned how to improve production, animal care and feeding, breeding, and how to enhance the effectiveness and governance of their cooperative in order to ensure food security. “We didn’t know that a cow can be milked three to four times a day, and I have started practicing that,” said Mary. Another Koitogos member, Paulina Chirchir, a widow who joined the cooperative after she took over her family’s herd, has also experienced tangible improvements. “My production has increased through the education I received about how to feed my cattle, and I can take loans and pay them by selling milk.”

I did not think that they were going to elect me as a leader. I understand their cultural beliefs whereby a woman is not supposed to lead men. But I insisted, I persisted, and they accepted the idea of forming a group.

Mary Rono (Chairperson, Koitogos Dynamic Dairy Cooperative Society)


The impact of the Koitogos dairy cooperative society became very clear during the drought and subsequent famine that struck Kibomet Location in 2011. “Being in a cooperative, our milk had a higher price, and the higher price helped us to raise money to feed our families,” said Rosaline Niega, a cooperative member.

The United Nations estimates that if women were given the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent, and have the potential to decrease the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent. After witnessing first-hand the success of Koitogos, Mary hopes the model will be expanded to other communities: “I wish to ask my women folk to really work in their farms, to put food on the table in our homes. We will produce food and our country will not experience another dilemma of hunger.”

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