On a Thursday mid-morning, the sun is already scotching and too hot in Voi, Taita Taveta County.
A drive through the dusty roads to Kishushe, about 40 kilometres west of Voi Town, leaves one reciting a short prayer. If only it rains for a second.
Through the vast dry area, dotted with withered trees, there is barely any sign of economic activity.
Along the way, the carcass of a golden brown cow in what is now a dry river is heart-breaking.
It is an indication of the hard times this, and other areas in the country, are facing following the current prolonged dry season.
Deep in Kishushe Forest though, we meet Flora January and Olive Mwadime.
Flora is the treasurer of Kishushe Hay Group while Mwadime is the group’s chairman.
They are inspecting a vast area in which there is drying traditional star grass which they have been harvesting and bailing to hay since they formed the group in 2015.
With a membership of 20, most of them neighbours, the group harvests this grass at least twice a year and sells it to dairy farmers in the highlands.
“Until we discovered that this grass is actually a goldmine, we used to burn it every time it grew tall,” says Mwadime
What they formally referred to as ‘Kwa choka’, to mean a place infested with snakes, has now turned out to be a source of income for families in the area.
They were just tired of always burning grass, year in year out, to keep off dangerous snakes that had turned the area into their hiding place.
Interestingly though, livestock farmers in the highlands surrounding this forest for a long time struggled to get hay for their animals especially during dry seasons.
For the Kishushe Hay Group, there was no capital need for their investment.
They did not need to plough, plant, irrigate or even apply fertilizers and chemicals. This grass was provided by nature.
From the approximate 120 acres, the group harvests about 3,600 bales of hay which they sell at Sh200 each.
The income is shared among members of the group.
Initially, they used to store hay in the fields and wait for buyers.
However, this storage method would be challenging as rains and ants would destroy the hay, leading to losses.
But the group got reprieve when the United States Aid for International Development (USAID) helped them construct a fodder bank that helped them stop such damages.
Through a programme dubbed Kenya Agricultural Value Chain Enterprises (Kaves) and in partnership with the Taita Taveta County government, the group was also facilitated to use mechanised harvesting.
They used to harvest the grass manually, which was not only time consuming, but also tiresome.
Through the project, the group has been linked with fodder markets within the neighbourhood and in other areas such as Robo, Kajiado and Machakos.
The group, according to Ms January, has a dream of investing in fully mechanised operations like using bailers, loaders and own harvesting tractors in future.
However this will be realised once they have bonded enough and are confident in investing together, she adds.
Currently, members have to spend about a week or two in the bush during the harvesting season which puts them at the risk of attacks by dangerous animals such as snakes and elephants.
Jimson Kambale, a dairy farmer in Wundanyi, is a frequent fodder client of the group.
He has to transverse down valleys to Kishushe to fetch the hay every time he is in need.
However, he says, he cannot compare the struggle of transport with the benefits of assurance that he has enough feed for his six cows throughout the year.
“I used to struggle with fodder for my cows especially during the rainy season but that is no longer a worrying issue since I met the Kishushe Hay Group,” he says.
Besides, he adds, his cows seem to like the grass, judging by the rate at which they consume it.
Currently, besides the dry period that has left many farmers suffering for lack of fodder, his store is still full.
He bought 200 bales in November in preparation of the dry season.
USAID-Kaves dairy specialist Dedas Mwambui says sustainable fodder production would boost the dairy industry in Kenya.
While some regions are good for milk production, he says, others are suitable for fodder production.
Yet, the perception that everyone must have a cow and produce milk has been affecting this important agribusiness sector.
“If people utilise what they have commercially to eke out a living while sustaining the needs of [others], then we have a complete and sustainable dairy sector,” he says.
Lack of sustainable fodder production, he adds, has been the major cause of fluctuation in milk production patterns in the country.
The current global warming occasioned by irregular weather seasons has also not been kind to livestock farmers who can no longer predict when and how much it will rain.