Miriam Kiprop, Nancy Mwashi and their assertive and humorous chairlady Beatrice Kirundu are no ordinary women; they are part of a group of about 15 women who go by the name of Jitahidi, which in Swahili means work hard in the Gambogi area in Vihiga district.

Just like their name Jitahidi, they know too well that they have to work hard in order to make a niche for themselves in this community as memories of their past which was not easy lingers in their memories.

These women have many feathers in their caps; they represented Kenya in a regional meeting on agri-business and they emerged tops in the East African region. They have skills that are sought after large and wide, and despite their this they still find time to give back to society. They support hundreds of orphans from their community. They are definitely invincible.

Some of the exotic chicken that Beatrice keeps.

“Kabla Jitahidi na AYODEF, hatukuwa watu.( Before we formed Jitahidi women’s group, we were hopeless). Our existence was meaningless as most of the times we were demoralized. When you look at us and see how healthy we are, one cannot believe that we used to till people’s farms in order to make a living. The only form of employment in the rural areas was and still is working on people’s farms and by then it used to be Shilling 50 for working for a full day. Nowadays people still get paid a paltry Shillings 100. Can you imagine women who are responsible for taking care of their families spending the entire day on other people’s farms, when will they ever develop their homesteads?” wondered Beatrice.

These women foresee a cottage industry in Gambogi in the near future as the steps of a thousand miles have already started. They practice diverse kinds of farming from growing the moringa tree and processing it to sweet potato farming and processing it as well. The fact that they are able to process some of their produce even without the required equipment, something that not many would be capable of, just goes to show that Jitahidi women are definitely invincible.

“Jitahidi women’s group is one of the most active groups under AYODEF. I am glad that we were able to tap into their energy and expertise as we work hand in hand in various projects. We saw it fit to work together and learn from each other rather than each on our own. The women here are hard workers and their vast experience is cherished,” stated Jotham Odari, the Programmes Coordinator at AYODEF.

“When we began this group, the only knowledge of some of our farm produce was the usual, harvest, boil, or cook or dry and make flour from maize. What we have know now is commendable. The women here have learnt how to make flour from sweet potatoes as well as from bananas. The only link missing to this equation is a machine that we require to ensure the process is faster. With the dryer, we are certain that we might just have the first cottage industry in this side of the country,” stated Beatrice.

The women informed me that all the skills they currently boast of were acquired when Dr. John Padwick from OAIC partnered with them and trained them life-long self-sustaining skills through the various capacity building workshops organised by OAIC that they participated in .

It is worthwhile to note that there were several groups that were trained on various agri-business skills but none can boast to do anything close to what Jitahidi has been able to do.

“Considering that there were various groups that got the same information and skills like us, we have not seen them make headway anywhere. OAIC donated a machine to one of the groups, but the machine is lying dormant. I wish the organization had given that machine to us because clearly we would have made maximum use of it. We hope they will consider getting us one as that will ensure that we make headway with the processing that we are currently involved in,” stated Beatrice.

The group is involved in activities that include among others, processing sweet potatoes to produce flour, sugar made from sweet bananas as well as making soap from cassava.

Dried bananas ready for processing in clear paperbags, Sweet Potato flour in yellow paper bag

Sweet potato flour:

After harvesting sweet potatoes, one is required to wash them, dry them in the sun for a day.

One is supposed to put the clean sweet potatoes in a black paper bag before drying them on the sun. This is done to ensure that all the nutrients are retained in the sweet potato.

Keep the dried/drying sweet potatoes in the house for between 8-12 days.

Take the sweet potatoes to the posho mill for grinding.

The flour is then packed in transparent plastic bags and labelled.

Nancy informs me that the packaging is not the best they would have loved to have and are looking into ways of ensuring that appropriate packaging is put on the flour to ensure that the market spreads across the board and not just in their small village.

“For one to get the best results for this type of flour, they need to ensure that they plant the very best of the sweet potatoes. One has to plant the orange-fleshed ones as opposed to the white ones,” stated Nancy.

The sweet potatoes flour can be used for baking mandazi – dough nuts, cakes and other baked foods. One is only required to add a bit of the home baking flour sold in the  shops in order to enhance its elasticity and ensure that the flour mixes well.

“We also use this flour to make porridge. We have benefitted a lot as we are sometimes invited to make cakes during occasions like weddings, birthdays and other celebrations and we bake using the sweet potato flour and the cakes normally come out beautifully. We are so grateful for being part of AYODEF and we sometimes wonder what our lives would have been without AYODEF,” stated Beatrice.

The dream of the cottage industry started a while back as they informed me that in 2001, they had started something akin to processing the bananas as they had learnt the banana processing technique but unfortunately it did not pick up and was thus abandoned.

 

Sugar-banana processing:

Jitahidi group also ensures that they have sugar all year round, courtesy of the many banana plantations they have in their farms.

For one to make sugar out of the bananas, they use the sweet banana.

Harvest the sweet banana’s and dry them using the sun.

The women then use the mortar and pestle technology to grind the dried up bananas.

After the grounding, they then sieve and they state that this is the best natural sugar one can have.

This sugar can be used for tea, porridge and any other beverage or foods that require sugar.

“We also make porridge using the sweet potato flour and one does not require any sugar as it is already sweet in itself. This is why most of the people living in the rural areas are very healthy and live longer than the ones in the urban areas. This is because we eat natural foods as opposed to the processed ones,” stated Beatrice.

The women also make soap from their produce.

 

Soap Procedure:

One requires cassava or sweet potatoes.

Boil either of them then add caustic soda and oil (Cow fat) and continue to boil.

You then take the mixture and you add drops of perfume – any perfume-.

You then take some salt, mix it with Aloe- Vera and you have home-made soap.

The Moringa tree:

Products of the Moringa tree

The Moringa tree is the current day mwarobaini – a type of a medicinal tree-. The women also plant it as it is rated highly. It is said that this tree could cure up to 300 illnesses.

 Take one teaspoon full of the moringa powder, add it to half a glass of water and stir.

Take this mixture three times a day for three days. This could cleanse up the system.

The experts who have been using the leaves say that the leaf powder helps in reducing the cholesterol levels, heart ailments, cures ulcers as well as dealing with obesity.

The powder can also be added to any type of food, vegetables, tea and anything edible depending on one’s preference; one gets energised for the day ahead, so they say.

The leaves are rich in calcium, it also helps with the memory and especially for children. Just like the Vitamin B found in fish, it helps in memory and parents of children who take food with the Moringa tree say that they are sharper and are more focused and alert.

The tree is also said to have zinc which is very helpful with the immune system.

It also helps when one has been bitten by a snake. When bitten by a snake, one should look for Moringa’s roots and squeeze the juice on the place bitten. This will reduce the speed at which the poison spreads to the rest of the body as one is rushed to the hospital.

Helps diabetic people, controls high blood pressure, cures ulcers, and is very effective on acute respiratory infections, anaemia, as well as common illnesses like fever and headaches.

“We are also thinking of how to start tapping in on the pineapples as the market is there. In  AYODEF, we area action-oriented. We have already started using the solar drier but it’s not as effective as an electric one. We are in dire need of a drier as it will enable us dry all our fruits better before we can process them,” stated Beatrice.

“The Ministry of Agriculture through the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute -KARI- trained us on what we call the utilization process. We would buy potatoes at Shillings 50 and when we are done with the processing, the end result would be sold at Shillings 200. I am very glad that the women in Gambogi area no longer have to make a living by working on people’s farms as they can now depend on their acquired skills to earn a livelihood. The diminutive farms in this area have not stopped us from being the best we can be. We cannot say that we have slept hungry even for a day,” added Beatrice.

They however stated that there are challenges that come with their type of farming. The decry the losses accrued due to challenges brought about by the vermin; moles.

“ There is no insecticide that kills the mole.  The people in this area have to employ someone to kill the mole at a fee of Shillings 50 for each mole caught. Sometimes the so called experts for trapping the moles lie to us as they show us moles they have caught before in other people’s farms. By the time you realise that the person came with their own moles, your money and hope will be gone with the wind. The moles destroy the sweet potatoes, the cassava plant, bananas and various other food crops.” she added.

The women have many feathers in their caps;

Banana Plantation

They have been invited to many forums to teach delegates on how they can earn a living through agri-business. All the processes they have learnt from sweet potato flour, to making sweet banana sugar and soap making.

“We are glad that we have been able to impact our society positively. We have taught various women’s groups as well as the young people who have started keeping themselves busy rather than idling around and thus less criminal activities are experienced in this area,” stated Miriam.

“Currently, we just depend on selling our products locally. The beautiful thing about the women here is that they have a centre for supplying them as they have identified places where they have key people who help push the products. This is just the first step but we are getting there. Plans are underway to do proper packaging and marketing for our products and we can only hope that our wings will grow tremendously,” she added.

The women here also keep cattle and rear chicken.

Currently, Beatrice has 130 chicken. She sells the eggs and chicken to the local people. In her 21/2 acre piece of land, she is able to do all kinds of farming.

Jitahidi which started as a small merry-go-round group which would meet every month, is very proud of its achievements to date. Each member would be required to contribute Shillings 200. The women still continue to meet every Sunday for an hour to discuss developmental issues. They discuss issues to do with shareholding, how to get loans and any development issue that may arise. They still continue to save weekly while others monthly, depending on how one’s capability. At the end of the year, members normally get dividends.

Beatrice, a mother of 8 children and 4 grand children says that all her children are healthy which she attributes to the traditional food she feeds them on.

Miriam is also proud to have been able to educate her children until high school through the sales she makes from their small “cottage industry.” She is glad that she has been able to take loans which she has used to expand her business.

She has planted a lot of traditional vegetables which have a ready market at a nearby market called Kiboswa.

This team has travelled widely in order to impact their skills across the East African region. They have travelled to Uganda to teach them the skills they have acquired over time and their Ugandan counterparts have also come to Kenya on an exchange programme.

They have also travelled to Tanzania and other parts of Rift Valley – Central Nandi- and various other parts across the county  and the East African region on a mission to impact skills and especially to the women.

Beatrice on her farm

They however, decry the fact that most of the times when they apply for funding to develop their projects, they are never considered because they are largely seen as developed and thus need no more funding.

“If we request for funds for development, we don’t even get responses this is because they think that we have sufficient funds because we get invites to speak in many places. But we still need support as we have a long way to go. We applied to the Women’s Enterprise Fund but never got any response from them. There is a programme called Kupiga Njaa Marufuku – kicking hunger out of Kenya – by the Ministry of Agriculture which funds various agricultural projects aimed at ensuring that there are sufficient food reserves. We tried to apply severally but we have not been successful. We sometimes feel that they prefer to fund the people who are not well learned as they rarely question any transaction. The ones that don’t question anything,” stated Beatrice.

The women represented Kenya in a regional meeting where women’s groups from the East African countries of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya came together to showcase their various activities in their farms and they came tops. They even got coverage from the newspapers and they are recognised far and wide.

Jitahidi women not only practice agri-business, but they also give back to society. The women have been able to support hundreds of orphans from their community. They have a feeding programme for the orphans that currently caters for over 300 children.

“We are in dire need of bags, school uniforms and even balls for the orphans. Sometimes some students will cry when they other go to school not fully dressed in uniforms while their counterparts are adorned in full school uniform. This is sad because we cannot afford to buy 300 school uniforms for  all the orphans. We hope that we shall get organisations that see the efforts we are putting in this project support us by buying uniforms for out orphans, balls and even books ,” stated the women.

The women cannot afford to feed the children every day. They feed them on Mondays and Wednesdays and on Sundays they take it upon themselves to call a pastor who preaches to them and counsel them because others have been hit hard by their situations. They also engage them in activities that vary from poetry recitation, playing football, drama, and other activities whose intentions is to help them forget the stress that may be bogging them down.

Members of the community normally take it upon themselves to bring anything that they deem necessary for the orphans who normally stay with their guardians. Some guardians bring some maize flour, other bring Shillings 100 and anything else that might be helpful in feeding the children.

The women thought it would be wise to introduce the feeding programme rather than come up with an orphanage. Due to many complications, the orphans would rather stay with their guardians or close relatives as the women feed them on the stipulated days.

“As Jitahidi women, we have set aside some land where we plant some vegetables specifically meant for the orphan’s project. We sell some and the money goes to the orphans well being. We cook come during their feeding day. The chief once in a while provides a sack of maize towards the project but that is just a drop in the ocean,” stated Beatrice.

Avacado Tree

“ We had been wondering why OAIC had  put us in the back seat, but when we heard that you were coming we were grateful, that at last OAIC had remembered us. We would like to be invited for more capacity building seminars that they organise as the last time we were invited to one was a long time ago. We also need to be refreshed as we learn from others. We would also like to request that  OAIC would consider to donate a drier to us so that we can develop ourselves even further. The only drier around this area is located at a place called Jebrok which is 5 kilometres away and this makes it difficult to even request for it. The Cottage industry in Gambogi, may not be a tall order as the steps are already in place to ensure that it comes to pass,” urged the women.

 

By: Fiona Imbali, OAIC Communications

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