The Gitaus keep several dairy cows in Nairobi on a tiny piece of land, with the business bringing them plenty of joy and income too.
I first met Stanley Gitau in April while on a tour of Kenyan farms and agri-businesses. He was our driver, taking myself and a group of international farming scholars on a 1,700km journey.
In the eight days he was with us, we travelled as far as Laikipia in the north and Makueni in the east.
Somewhere along the journey, Gitau revealed that he too was a farmer, keeping seven lactating cows on an eighth of an acre in Nairobi.
Interestingly, he was doing the business with his wife. I hoped to one day visit his farm.
That opportunity came knocking last week when I was back in Kenya. Gitau, though, was busy with his second job guiding tourists around Amboseli National Park.
“Never mind,” he said, determined to make the visit happen. “My friend will pick you up and my wife will show you round the farm.”
I was expecting a trip to the rural outskirts of Nairobi only to end up in the bustling heart of Githurai, a densely populated suburb of the capital.
The roads were jammed with traffic and the streets packed with people and market stalls. Horns honked and music played. David Mburu, Gitau’s taxi driver friend, assured me this was a prime location for a dairy farm.
“See how Gitau has identified his market,” he grinned, turning into a quieter street and pulling to a stop outside a high stone wall and metal gates.
I opened the gate and in one single step crossed from pulsing urban life into a working farm. Here were all the sounds and smells I associate with dairying at home in Britain.
A large pile of manure, sold for biogas and to local shambas, was the first thing I saw. Beyond that a chicken coop, Gitau’s stone house and I met his wife, Salome, standing in the doorway welcoming us with a broad smile.
She ushered us into a neat yard ringed with clean, shady cattle stalls, a barn full of hay and a feed store.
SELLING DIRECTLY TO CONSUMERS
Seven Friesian cows, two young bulls, two goats and some chickens were all lazily chewing or pecking the ground in the afternoon sunshine. “All this on a 100x50ft plot?” I wondered.
“We milk the cows three times a day, yielding at least 60 litres per session at the peak, which we sell at Sh60 a litre,” said Salome.
Neighbours and residents queue up with their containers to buy milk fresh from the cow. Often still warm, it’s filtered from a churn directly into the customer’s bottle.
“There is so much demand for milk and it helps a lot selling direct to the consumer,” Gitau explained later when we caught up after the visit.
“Selling directly to consumers is better than waiting for a cheque from processors because if you don’t have money in the morning, you can’t buy what you need for the cows on the same day,” said Gitau, noting he sold his coffee plants in rural Murang’a and made enough money to buy their current plot in Githurai.
I must admit it struck me as a risky business. Back in the UK, the vast majority, more than 99 per cent, of milk is pasteurised and the sale of raw cows’ milk is heavily regulated with only 100 registered producers in a country with a population of 65 million.
But it is increasingly regulated in Kenya too. Gitau is only allowed to sell unpasteurised milk from fixed premises – his farm and he adheres to strict rules on hygiene and food safety.
He instructs customers to routinely boil it before drinking and milk from cows being treated with antibiotics, for things like mastitis, is withdrawn and discarded.
When I pressed him further on food safety, he was passionate about the quality of his produce.
“I’ve heard of people ferrying milk in matatus or using large amounts of hydrogen peroxide as a preservative, which is not safe for human consumption. My family consumes milk from our cows. So, why should I sell something that’s not safe?”
He’s well aware of the controversies surrounding the hawking of raw milk and the stern view taken by the Kenyan Dairy Board. He accepts even he could eventually be banned from trading.
“I am already prepared for what would happen,” he said. “I would have to cut my costs and sell to the big processors at Sh35. If after two years I am selling at a loss, I would pull out and do something else,” said Gitau, who has been farming all-through his life and bought his first animal at 28.
The Gitaus are happy with the progress of their agribusiness. They use artificial insemination to improve genetics and breed their own replacement heifers, increasingly under the guidance of their eldest son Johnson Gitau, a student at the Kabete Veterinary School of the University of Nairobi.
Bull calves are given to family members for fattening and sold for beef.
By far their biggest cost is feeding, and the cost of production in this zero-grazing system is Sh400 per cow, per day.
The animal’s diet consists of hay, maize stovers, napier grass, molasses, maize germ, bran and pollard (both derived from wheat) and a high-protein dairy meal.
Gitau sources the ingredients direct from trusted manufacturers and mixes the meal himself. He offers the animals water in limitless supply.
At peak production, their best cow produces 36 litres of milk per day and the Gitaus believe diet is the secret.
“I hired a professor of nutrition who charged me Sh10,000 for one hour of advice but it was worth it,” he said confidently.
“I give my cows the best. I don’t tell people what to feed their cows because if it goes wrong, they will complain, but I do tell them to go and talk to a professional.”
For hygiene, the cubicles are mucked out every day without fail and the high stone walls are for keeping out animals, which could spread disease.
Everything is recorded on the farm, even the tiniest fluctuations in milk yield. The couple work closely with the district veterinary officer, who vaccinates the animals, informs them of any disease outbreaks and the cattle are sprayed for ticks twice a month.
He takes precautions against mastitis by milking every cow thoroughly and disinfects the teats after every milking.
Since moving to Githurai in 2001, the Gitau’s have built a successful husband-and-wife partnership. Salome works full-time on the farm, overseeing feeding and husbandry and managing two employees, including a full-time herdsman.
“To speak the truth, on the farm she is doing even better than I can,” said Gitau, visibly proud of his partner.
“We trust each other and I include her in everything. Whatever money we get from the cows, we put in the bank so that we can withdraw cash to buy feed and so on. I am selling a litre of milk for Sh60 and a litre of beer would cost me Sh400, so if I take money from the farm and go for my beers, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Instead, they are investing money in the future. In five years, they plan to double their herd, half of it calving in January and the other half in June/July to ensure a constant and even supply of milk.
Will Gitau, 50, be earning enough by then to stop driving tourists around? He laughed and replied, “I enjoy driving and guiding as much as farming and it is more secure because at the end of the month, I get my salary. For farming, I am not controlled by anybody and I enjoy that freedom. I believe in quality and diversification of income.”
Prof Paul Kimurto, an agricultural expert from Egerton University, said to farm successfully as a couple, activities on the farm should be shared based on gender abilities.
“Tasks that require more use of energy, for instance, production and external marketing should left to the man as the woman minds responsibilities such as overseeing labour management, marketing, maintenance, sorting, packaging and grading.
There should also be an agreement on sharing of proceeds from the venture to the efficient operation of the business based on the responsibilities performed by each person,” Prof Kimurto said.
Anna Jones is an agri-journalist and Nuffield Farming Scholar, a scheme which sponsors the global study of agriculture. She has travelled around Kenya researching the coverage of farming issues in the media. Anna was born and bred on a beef and sheep farm on the border between England and Wales. (firstname.lastname@example.org)