An island of wealth in the Pokot sea of poverty and cattle rustling

Saturday February 23 2013

PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI A general view of Marakwet county in West Pokot.

PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI A general view of Marakwet county in West Pokot. NATION MEDIA GROUP


As the March 4 elections close in, Kenyans are wringing their hands, wondering whether the poll will pass peacefully, and whether the nation shall get firmly on a prosperous path.

The anxiety is born of a history, especially the 1990s when the country hit economic bottom; and the fear springs from the horrific 2008 post-election violence in which nearly 1,400 people were killed and about 600,000 displaced. Many Kenyans still languish in squalid internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

But Kenya also has many stories of people who dug themselves out of deep holes through their wits, and communities that forged peace and prosperity virtually from thin air.

Many times, they are to be found in the most unlikely places — like in the south of West Pokot County.

Pokot conjures up images of an unruly region; dry and hot conditions; a tough land plagued by bloody cattle rustling between the Pokot and their Marakwet neighbours — and against their Pokot cousins across the border in Uganda’s Karamoja region.

However, life in, especially, South Pokot has long moved on. It is just that the headlines about it haven’t changed. And in a small corner of this land, in a place called Lelan, there are hopeful lessons for the rest of Kenya and East Africa.

As soon as you branch off from Kapenguria, the “capital” of the Pokot region, and hit the murram road to Lelan 70 kilometres away, you begin to sense that you will be in for a surprise. This is not an arid land. It is endless rows upon row of green rolling hills. In nearly every valley you look, there is a stream with clear water.

As you climb to the higher hills, you drive by towns with tongue-twister names like Kaibichibichi.

Nearly every home has a neat wooden fence with Friesian cattle boxed in, and gardens arranged with great deliberation. As you approach Lelan, along the road you pass many women and young men leading donkeys weighed down with milk.

The crown jewel of Lelan area is the Lelan Highland Dairy Company’s milk cooling plant. The economic “miracle” that the Lelan Highland Dairy Company has unleashed in this corner of Kenya has been told, though perhaps not often enough (See “Fruits of a land once scarred by war”, Daily Nation, County Edition, December 1, 2011).

The story of the rise of Lelan Dairy Company, and the milk plant are as winding as the road between Kapenguria and Lelan. The Pokot and their Marakwet neighbours have feuded and fought over cattle for generations, but in the 1980s and 1990s things calmed down a little.

Then in 1998, hell visited the region. There was a memorably bloody clash between the Pokot and Marakwet that wiped all the progress that had been made over the years, and left many dead and impoverished.

It was the wake-up call the Pokot and Marakwet needed, and religious leaders worked overtime to mend relations.

On the sidelines, a boisterous and energetic Pokot farmer called Kenneth Lomaipong looked on, and thought that if cattle was what was bringing war between the Pokot and Marakwet, then cattle could also unite them.

The Zebu cattle that the Pokot and Marakwet had kept for generations were resilient, but they had a problem that the uninitiated might not easily realise. First, they were hardy, so it was actually easy to rustle them and drive them long distances away.

Secondly, they needed open grazing pastures, thus increasing conflict over grass in dry seasons. Thirdly, and most importantly, Zebus were inefficient. They produced between six to 10 litres of milk a day. It was difficult to build a milk business around that.

In addition, the large herds needed dramatically increased the chances of conflict over pasture and served as a magnet to rustlers.

Friesian cows, on the other hand, could produce 20 to 30 litres of milk a day in Pokot’s conditions. They could be fed in paddocks, and were not all-toughed-up lean muscle like Zebus. It was useless for cattle rustlers to target them. They wouldn’t get far with them.

Men like Lomaipong saw Friesian cows as the ultimate economic fix, but they were a little ahead of their time. Their ideas were laughed off, but they persisted. Eventually in October 2008 they decided to form a cooperative, the Lelan Dairy Company.

An elder in the Lelan area, Lorito Lomaru, thought Lomaipong & Co were on to a smart idea. Lomaru became the first person to buy shares in the company. He paid Sh20. Yes, Sh20.

The cooperative’s founders started travelling to cattle and agricultural shows, looking for ideas and help on how to shift to Friesian animals, and make money from milk. At one such event in Rift Valley, they were told to go and look for the people of East Africa Dairy Development (EADD).

EADD, which works in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, was inspired and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates. It is not your regular NGO that dishes money. Its regional offices off Denis Pritt Road in Nairobi are decidedly unassuming.

It is a consortium of five partners (Heifer International, Technoserve, International Livestock Research Institute, African Breeders Service Total Cattle Management Ltd, and World Agroforestry Centre).

Its primary business is developing ideas in the dairy sub-sector, helping organise farmers to work their way out of poverty, and to put the smart ones around a table with people and organisations who can invest in their projects.

Lelan Dairy found EADD, and EADD went down to have a look. Training workshops, sessions in modern dairy farming, and business management followed. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

In July 2009, the cooling plant, which has a capacity of 10,000 litres, opened in Lelan town. It was funded with a loan (not a grant) made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other members in the EADD consortium.

Today it is a thriving cooperative of 1,800 farmers. Mr Lomaipong is its chairman. All around, he is simply referred to as ‘Chairman’.

Every month, it pays out Sh12 million for milk delivered there by farmers.

It is easy to think of Lelan Dairy Company as a story of economic success. Indeed in most senses it is just that. But it is also a narrative about how economics can solve political problems; about how leadership arises; about the ideal role of the state in Kenya; why citizens need voice; and ultimately about how development happens.

As we stood outside the cooling plant, Lomaipong noted that in 2008 there was “nothing in Lelan”. “No one had a car or motorcycle in Lenan five years ago, and only a few bicycles,” he said.

“Today, there are motorcycles all over”. And of course, men like Lelan Dairy Company general manager Benson Lingatukei and the cooling plant manager David Longaripuo have cars. In the past, folks with their education and experience didn’t work in Lelan.

Someone else who now comes daily to Lelan is the Brookside milk company. After a competitive run for the plant’s milk from many bidders, Brookside clinched the deal. Its trucks are almost always parked outside the plant.

The cooling plant is what brought electricity to Lelan — and now other businesses are coming up because of that. But the cooling plant and Lelan Dairy Company happened because of the shock of the 1998 Pokot-Marakwet clashes, and a group of rural farmers who decided — largely out of enlightened self-interest — that they did not want to keep on losing the fruits of their labour in the conflicts, and did something about it.

With farmers dumping Zebus, shifting to Friesians, modern farming and making money, Lelan needed a financial service. But there was none anywhere near except, again, in Kapenguria 70km away.

The cooperative applied for a licence to start a limited savings and credit service. The aim, at first, was just to use it to keep money and then pay farmers for their milk.

It was not to be. Because the Lelan financial service was the only such operation in that part of the world, soon all the teachers in the surrounding schools were clamouring for their salaries to be sent there, instead of to Kapenguria. And before long, some schools, too, wanted their moneys from the Treasury sent there.

This was never the plan, but before long Lelan Financial Services was born, and becoming a serious thing. But, as in the Lelan Dairy Company, the financial service initially needed the First Believer. It came in the form of an assuming old man in the village, Charles Rumot. He was the first shareholder in the financial service; buying shares of Sh10,000.

Today, Lelan Financial Services has nearly 600 savings accounts and a Sh6 million loan book. And in this society that historically was dominated by brave warriors, women hold 45 per cent of the accounts.

To understand that unusual fact is to appreciate the role of accident in the Lelan story. In keeping with their enlightened self-interest, the founders of Lelan had seen that a profitable dairy industry would shift incentives away from cattle rustling and violence between the Pokot and Marakwet.

However, to lock in the Marakwet more decidedly, they had to have a place for them in the room where the pie was being sliced. They decided that every top position in Lelan Dairy Co held by a Pokot, would have a Marakwet as a deputy. And each one held by a Marakwet would have a Pokot second in-command. It is a lesson that the leaders in Nairobi would do well to learn.

It was money in pockets and this representation that brought peace. But the end of conflict also brings new problems.

Previous cases in which warriors were killed in cattle raiding campaigns had left behind widows. And the young men who used to be the foot soldiers were unemployed, and creating new social problems.

It happened that as these problems cropped up, the Lelan Dairy managers were also dealing with a range of other problems. Farmers were bringing milk — in plastic jerricans — from as far as 14km on their heads. This meant that they couldn’t carry all the milk they produced, and often the milk arrived spoilt.

Again, the Lelan Dairy Co and its members came up with a brilliant solution. They had been told that they could use donkeys to carry milk. Farmers would be able to carry more milk to the plant using donkeys. However, few people in Lelan had even seen a donkey. They were told that far away in Kipkelion donkeys were widely used.

So the Lelan Dairy chiefs headed to Kipkelion to see donkeys, and buy some.

Within months, donkeys were arriving in Lelan. Then, in one of their most innovative solutions, the Lelan chiefs decided that farmers should specialise in raising cattle and producing milk, and that its transport by donkey be given to women and young men – the “losers” in the peace. With that single decision, the problem of poor widows and unemployed youth was sorted out.

These women who transport milk to the plant by donkeys, partly explain why so many have savings account at the Lelan Financial Service.

With dairy farming beginning to pick up, Lelan Dairy decided it needed to bring inputs for farmers closer, so it opened an agrovet shop in the town. There is one thing different about this agrovet shop, though.

One corner of it is full of solar units, comprising a panel and supply line wires. The top end ones have four lines that light one light each, and two for charging solar phones. The electricity to the Lelan Dairy cooling plant does not go off the main road.

With farmers making money and building better homes, they are hooking up solar power. At the end of 2012 when I was there, the Lelan area alone had 250 households with solar. And, of course, solar-powered mobile phones are in vogue.

The remarkable thing about that is that until three years ago, the area was in a mobile phone service blind spot. People who had mobile phones not only had to travel far to charge them, but also wandered long distances from their homes looking for high enough hill points and tall trees to get a signal and call.

As money came to Lelan, and people bought more cellphones, Safaricom noted a sharp increase in traffic from the “wilderness”. Curious, they sent their technicians to check what the hell was happening. They were surprised by what they found and immediately went to work. In 2010, they built a mast in the area.

So again, without men like Lomaipong and unintentional visionaries like old man Lomaru, none of this would have happened when it did.

On the day we visited the cooling plant, ‘Chairman’ gathered his team in a small crowded office at the back of the plant to tell us about their works. There were three desks in the office, with three computers, a printer, and a small photocopier.

Then, very casually, at one point he pointed to the photocopier. “You know, up to now, this is the only photocopier in this area,” he said. I wondered where he was going with that story.

Then he added; “We didn’t think of this when we were starting this place, but now people come here to make photocopies. In the past, they would travel even 100kms to Kapenguria just to make a photocopy of their ID.”

He must have noticed the startled expression on my face, because he added. “They would travel 100kms to make a copy of an ID which costs just Sh2.” The transport alone to and fro was nearly 50 times the cost of the ID photocopy.

Lelan has made a break. There are beautiful homes and gardens all around the area. But the pain has not ended. Power outages are still plenty at the cooling plant, so they have a generator that sometimes runs most of the day.

Plant manager Longaripuo says that drives up the cost of running the project by up to over 20 per cent — money that would go into shareholders’ pockets.

In the rainy seasons, the roads get quite bad. Now that it has become a big player in the milk business, the Lelan Dairy Company has become its prisoner too. It is desperate that trucks and pick-ups that bring milk to and from the plant arrive on time.

So it invests quite a bit of money to station tractors at various points along the road where trucks get stuck, so that they can pull them out. Sometimes it also has to fix bad sections of roads.

With so much money going into paying tractors to tow stuck milk trucks, and to repair roads that local and state authorities should be doing, companies like Lelan are diverting money away from expanding production capacity and investing in something it would want to do — a youth enterprise fund.

Perhaps, no single person typifies the possibilities that this citizens’ enterprise and what a bit of vision can do than Philip K’Par Losiwa. The elders of Lelan are proud of Losiwa. There is a reason why.

A clever unassuming man, Losiwa is a pioneer whose obsession is to be a great dairy farmer. He had moved around trying to set up a dairy farm, then the cooling plant was established in Lelan and he decided to set up nearby. We visited with Losiwa, and he gave us lunch.

We drank mursik (sour milk) and talked cows. Losiwa has one of the most impressive herds of Friesian animals I have seen. They are huge, and exclusively black and white. He is a man of the future. He has fancy machines for making silage.

He is an environmentalist who has grown very many trees. He also has the first calves produced by artificial insemination in that part of the world. People come to see, to confirm that it is possible.

He had recently bought a cow for Sh130,000. The farmers didn’t believe that there was an animal that could cost that much. Now they know, and are excited. A workaholic, Losiwa has a beautiful home, all lit with solar. His wife and children don’t look like rural folks. They look like they are straight out of a nice Nairobi suburb.

Losiwa is alert, but strikingly shy. There was one thing amiss, though. He had four cows that were in-calf at the same time. Professionals would have advised him that both for cost reasons, and consistency of milk supply from his farm, he should have spaced them out.

Some agencies had visited him, and helped him draw up a business plan. That was useful, but not the most urgent help he needed. A farmer with the mind of Losiwa, doesn’t actually need too much help from outside. He just requires information, and he probably would get all of it by Googling it.

There must be hundreds, if not thousands of Losiwas out there in the Kenyan countryside. If one asked what the government that will be elected on March 4 will do for the good people of Pokot and such folks elsewhere in Kenya; the simple answer would be not much.

They have their shrewd local leaders already, so give them peace, electricity, fix the roads, get them financial services, a good Internet connection, and watch them make their country great.