AGRIBUSINESS: Why melons, tape may be economy game changer in arid areas

Watermelon. PHOTO/Courtesy.

When the melons began to flower, the women were told to stay away from Jane’s kitchen garden.

“Our husbands had told us that the melons would go bad if we stepped on the patch,” says Jane Chepchumba.

Ms. Chepchumba had joined other women in the Chamakagh Mother to Mother Support Group in Sigor sub-county, West Pokot County, to plant watermelons as well as kale, spinach and black night shade or managu.

The activity was part of an empowerment program by Action Against Hunger (ACF), an organization that works in Pokot, Mandera and Isiolo Counties.

West Pokot has a population of 621, 241 people. Out of these, 307,013 are males and 314,213 are females, with an intersex population of 15.

The program covers Cheptule, Annet and Chepkook locations in Pokot Central, which has 119, 016 people made up of 59,682 males and 59,331 females and an intersex population of 3, as recorded in the 2019 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) census data.

The program seeks to offer mitigation solutions against hunger and its effects in the area.

One of the causes of food insecurity in such patriarchal societies has been the lack of access to varied agricultural activities by women, who are the children’s main caregivers in the home. 

Prior to ACF’s entry into the matrix, the married women and widows in the group based in Cheptule location were used to rearing livestock and mostly relying on their spouses to provide for their families’ needs.

All that changed in August 2020 when the group received a major boost from Action Against Hunger (ACF), a non-governmental organization (NGO) which stepped in to offer assistance.

“We had discussions with ACF personnel and the organization subsequently agreed to our request for assistance. The NGO helped us set up the kitchen garden,” Chepchumba said.

According to ACF’s Food Security and Livelihood (FSL) assistant Lucas Odhiambo, ACF is an organization dedicated to fighting the causes and effects of hunger through integrated community empowerment.

“Working with the ministries of agriculture and health, we provide program beneficiaries with training on agriculture, seed, health information and basic financial management skills,” said Mr Odhiambo.

ACF provided seed for the vegetable and watermelon project, and organized for visits by the ministry of agriculture’s extension officers.   

According to Odhiambo, some of the women are young widows. “Most of those,” he says, “lose their husbands to the violence that sometimes accompanies inter-community conflicts.”

Initially, the program had begun with some misgivings from the community’s men. In Pokot Central, like many other parts of Kenya and Africa, it is clear that men head the family unit.

“Our husbands were not very impressed with the project at the beginning, but as we began to get vegetables from the garden, the resistance began to melt away,” said Ms. Chepkemoi.

When the melons began to flower, the men’s warning kept the women away from the garden. To keep the project going, the women resorted to hiring some men to water the garden and tend the melons.

“We had a hard time in ensuring the garden was tended in our absence because of invasion by livestock. It was at that time we decided to use my patch as test case on whether the melons would rot according to the cultural belief,” she said.

To the women’s delight, the Sukari 4 variety of melon seeds on Jane’s kitchen garden defied tradition to survive in the nursery, before growing into a large, luscious fruit. 

Mr. Odhiambo says the organization is aware of the society as patriarchal, but adds that it has not been an immovable obstacle to progress.

“We had to involve the men in our programs to establish accountability and ensure that they were part of the process of deciding on whether to adopt the new project,” he said.

Encouraged by the impressive harvest that was the result of their tenacity and resilience, the women went on to sell the watermelon crop for KSh. 67,000.

The group is awaiting the next crop, having learnt the valuable lessons from their first successful outing in the gardening business.

“A positive change is visible in our lives. We no longer sponge on our men to give us cash for every single need around the home,” she says.

Mr. Isaac Loitangiro, Jane’s husband, attributes the violence that accompanies cattle rustling in the region to poverty, and partly to the pressure on the men to provide for their families.

“Most of the time, it’s the pressure to provide for families that pushes men into cattle rustling and other related criminal activities,” Loitangiro says.

He admits having had a few doubts about the kitchen garden project when it begun, but he is now convinced of its positive impact on his family’s life.

Having seen and tasted the success of the project, Loitangiro is now convinced that mixed farming is the way to go for other families in the region.

“The program has opened our eyes to the benefits of mixed farming. My children are eating better; their health has improved. Even cases of kwashiorkor and other diet-related complications in the village have significantly reduced,” he says.

Loitangiro is now appealing to fellow men in the county to allow their wives to cultivate vegetables, saying they will not only enrich their diets, but also provide extra cash for buying other household items.

Group member and teacher, Eucabeth Korinyang, agrees with ACF’s move to consult the village’s men on the project.

“We are glad we talked to our husbands before implementing the project because it cleared the way for the garden to become the success story it is today,” says Ms. Korinyang.

Child health, hygiene and sanitation are other pillars of the program.

To keep track of their children’s nutrition, Korinyang and other members of the group have been taught to use the measuring tool known as Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) tape.

It helps her track whether her two young children are growing up healthy or malnourished.

“I use the MUAC tape to monitor my children’s growth. It has taught me to know when I need to act to ensure that their diet continues to be balanced for optimum development,” says Ms. Korinyang.    

“Red means there is danger, orange means there is reduced danger but the parent must take the child to the medical facility for medical advice. Green, on the other hand means the child is healthy,” adds Ms. Korinyang.

Mr Benard Atiko, who is the Community Health Extension Worker (CHEW) covering Kokwositot, Lepei and surrounding areas, says the program has changed the health outcomes for the parents and their children.

“We are seeing a significant decrease in cases of malnutrition since the nutrition and kitchen garden interventions were put in place,” he says.

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