The making of Good Neighbours
BY NGOBILO NAKITARE and CATHERINE RIUNGU
Her in-depth knowledge of agriculture easily creates an impression of a highly qualified professional. Until you ask where she trained and Zipporah Simiyu bursts into a hearty laughter. 'I have trained myself', she softly replies and the memories of that day in 2004 when she brought together her neighbours over a cup of tea to discuss how they could work together to improve their incomes are relived.
Back then, farmers were poor, relying on beans and maize amidst idle potential. Her attempts to introduce horticulture on her five-acre farm yielded nothing because neighbours would raid the farm and cart away produce.
To stop the malpractice, she decided to call the neighbours to discuss how they could work together so that each would become their brother’s keeper. They liked the idea, and she was asked to lead them. This was the beginning of Good Neighbours, a community-based organization that today is transforming livelihoods in parts of Western and Rift Valley regions of the country.
From a group of 10 farmers, voluntarily managing a communal nursery she is running an empire of 8,000 groups with 50,000 individuals, a development she looks at with both passion and satisfaction. “People are making money, living better lives and eating more nutritious foods”, she said.
After starting with passion fruits, Good Neighbours, whose head office is in Wabukhonyi market, Bungoma County, has since diversified into tomatoes, mango, tissue culture bananas, macadamia, avocado, African leafy vegetables and still growing.
Zippy, as she is fondly referred to by the neighbours, says although the take off was slow, the project eventually kicked off as participants starting earning weekly from the first passion fruit harvest in May 2004.
But in November of the same year, bacterial wilt attacked the fruits, a blessing in disguise because she visited every office she thought would help – Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Ministry of Agriculture and big growers like Kakuzi. Kari’s head of horticulture Dr Lusike Wasilwa was very helpful, she says and took it almost personal and helped them to introduce the propagated varieties that are less susceptible to diseases.
In the process of finding a solution, she stumbled on development projects like GIZ, that undertook to help the farmers establish and expand nurseries, as well as train farmers on production and post-harvest handling of produce. It also created the need to diversify to other crops.
As the group grew, and demand for seedlings soared, it became apparent that voluntary nursery management was not tenable anymore necessitating the employment of full time attendants. Today, it has employed 40 full time staff.
By 2007, 30,000 grafted seedlings had been established. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) through the Samllholder Empowerment Project came on board to train farmers on water harvesting, improving feeder roads and post-harvest handling.
Around the same time, the USAID Aids, Population and Health Integrated Assistance (APHIA 11) programme approached Good Neighbours to supply fruits and vegetables for its nutrition project. “With this order, we required more fruits therefore we had to recruit more farmers”, she said. The deal saw 35,000 seedlings established and about 50,000 acres of orchards and vegetable gardens set up.
“I feel happy whenever I see my neighbours excel because of growing fruits and vegetables. At least every home around mine has tomatoes, passion fruits and vegetables,” she said adding, “children are learning in good schools and have almost all necessities at their disposal compared to how impoverished they were due to overreliance on maize and sugarcane, seven years ago.”
Most farmers in the group have small parcels of land with a few large-scale ones from Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces.
In 2008, the USAID funded Kenya Horticulture Development Program (now Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Project joined the train and partnered with Good Neighbours to replicate the production units in Rift Valley and Western , a development that took the fruits to Lessos, and Kabarak creating 15 additional demonstration units.