Kenneth Lomaipong looks back with pleasure at how far they have come.
With annual earnings for his Pokot and Marakwet farmers running at Sh90 million, he is counting his blessings for a peace initiative that turned around the fortunes of an area that was hard hit by tribal conflict that had left scores of people dead and property worth millions of shillings destroyed.
Mr Lomaipong is the chairman of Lelan Highland Dairy Company, leading more than 2, 000 farmers from the two communities — and his is one of the business success stories in West Pokot.
The land is beautiful, rich in pyrethrum, potatoes, mangoes and merino sheep.
But it has not always been a beautiful story. For many years, the Pokot and their Marakwet neighbours clashed over their most prized assets — cows.
As many as 50 people have killed in Lelan alone in the clashes and many more maimed.
In 1998, a particularly vicious fight took place. Its consequences helped to bring the protagonists to their senses and thus change the fortunes of the area. Many people fed up with the fights decided to make peace.
Mr Wilfred Lorot, one of the successful farmers now profiting from the dairy company, explained: “All the wealth that we had amassed over time and the harmonious coexistence which saw trade and intermarriages flourish between the Pokot and Marakwet went up in smoke during the 1998 fighting. It was so bad that some of us abandoned our farms and livestock to take refuge in other parts of the district.
“The animals that we were fighting for did not have any value. That’s when church leaders initiated dialogue to end the senseless animosity.”
To ensure lasting peace between the two communities, a big cross was erected on top of Kapsait Hill, on the border of West Pokot and Marakwet.
Every year thousands of people from the two communities converge on the hill for special prayers.
The chairman of the farmers association said they started off slowly and steadily the dairy project took shape with Lelan as the hub.
It was at first a loose arrangement but eventually we saw the need to consolidate out resource and 10 years after the conflict, the Lelan Highland Dairy Company was formed bringing together farmers from Pokot South, Marakwet West and Marakwet East.
Mr Lomaipong said, “We realised that the two communities that have lived side by side for centuries had so many things in common, and we set out to build on our strengths to unlock the huge potential in the area.”
The farmers, who were still suspicious of each other, started from a humble 600 litres of milk per day to today’s average of 13,000 litres a day.
The idea to bring about lasting peace while at the same time earning reasonable incomes earned the admiration and support from donors, among them the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who lent them Sh12 million.
With the money, said Mr Lomaipong, the association bought a 10,000 litre cooling plant and with it kicked off an enterprise that has diversified into other products that benefit the farmers immensely.
A share of the cake
“We entered into a deal with Brookside Dairies after winning a hotly contested contract with two other leading milk processors in the country.
“Although it seems crude transporting milk from as far as Tabach over 14 kilometres away from the plant using donkeys, it has become very convenient and allows everyone in the area to get a share of the cake,” said Mr Lomaipong.
Women and youths who deliver the milk are paid Sh2 a litre. From their humble beginning, Lelan Highland Dairies has established a successful financial services wing, a cooperative society where members buy shares and get dividends at the end of the year while the farmers get bonuses.
In addition they have opened an agro-vet outlet in Lelan Town to help farmers with inputs without them having to travel more than 100 kilometres to Kapenguria.
Because the project is fully owned by farmers, there are arrangements for small loans for improving stock, for school fees and other services that have seen milk production surpassing that capacity of the cooling plant.
“When we started it looked like a pipe dream but the peace that has existed has seen the company grow and we pay an average of Sh10 million every month to the farmers in a company that has employed about 40 people, among them five managers.
“Our farmers enjoy considerable luxury at home because we entered into agreement with Solar Aid Kenya to provide solar panels at reasonable prices. Today, most of the households enjoy considerable comfort from solar energy,” the chairman said.
They have already repaid about half the loan from the Gates Foundation and plans are underway to open up another cooling plant in Tabach, to ease pressure on the existing plant and also to help farmers who have to walk long distances to deliver milk.
As the local farmers develop their business thinking, they are asking those seeking political positions under the devolved government what value they would add to their enterprise.