Sarah Bett struggled to put food on the table for her siblings because of sticking to traditional and near- fanatical culture in the village of Mwaita in Cherangany, Trans Nzoia county, of growing only maize in one of the grain baskets of the country.
The farmer’s fortunes changed about four years ago after she defied the tradition and shifted to dairy farming. Sarah says her income from growing maize had declined over the years as the cost of fertilisers, paying farm hands, destruction by pests and changing weather affected production. As a side activity, she kept some cows, which earned her Sh2,000 per month (Sh24,000 a year).
After abandoning maize and investing all her earnings and energy into dairy farming, today she makes about Sh300,000 (Sh3.6 million per year). “I hardly earned enough from maize that I used to give much attention to. The returns were meagre,” Sarah says.
“Our lives here at the farm have improved nowadays; I earn just like a salaried employee. Every month, I visit my bank and withdraw some money. This was not the case when I used to grow maize,” she says.
At the beginning, the milk she produced amounted to 10 litres from the six cows she kept. The milk was consumed at the homestead while extra litres were sold to villagers.
Since many of her neighbours also kept a few cattle, some of her milk became wasted, especially when milk production was high. The challenge lasted until a milk cooling plant was installed in the area. Today, Sarah gets 200 litres from her 10 dairy cows, takes 195 litres to the cooling plant and reserves five litres for home use.
The Dairy Farmers of Cherangany (DFC) Society assists her and other members such as Stellah Biwott with farm inputs and loans. According to the CEO of the co-operative, Eliud Kichwen, the society has more than 1,750 active members who supply 4,500 litres of milk per day. “A research we conducted before establishing the cooling plant showed that most dairy farmers were producing an average of 10 to 15 litres of milk from their cows daily. We were losing over 30 per cent of the milk due to lack of market,” he says.
Due to improved supply of milk after handing over of Friesian cows to farmers late last year, the cooperative has increased milk buying price from Sh32 per litre to Sh34, saying the move has motivated more farmers to join the cooperative. “The availability of transport by KCC, who purchases our milk at Sh38 to Sh40 per litre, has made it possible for us to increase storage capacity,” he says.
Before her fortunes changed, Stellah Biwott repaired clothes at the local shopping centre and earned Sh200 per day that enabled her to save Sh10,000 needed to become a member of the cooperative. Stellah applied for a loan and was given Sh20,000 which she used to buy a heifer. She now gets more than five litres of milk daily from her cow, takes five litres to the cooling plant making more than Sh3,000 per month.
Statistics obtained from the department of Agriculture show that dairy farmers from Trans Nzoia county produced an average of 113 million litres of milk in 2017 from which they earned Sh2.8 billion. This was an increase from 2016 where milk produced in the county was 109 litres earning farmers Sh2.7 billion. This year, the ministry expects the sector to grow by 20 per cens after poor maize prices that has forced many farmers to shift to dairy farming.
Area deputy governor Dr Stanley Tarus says dairy farming is transforming the lives of farmers in the county. “Since independence, Trans Nzoia residents have been planting maize, which has proven incapable of lifting their living standards,” he says.
Tarus says the county administration desire to see reduced poverty rates, which stands at 51.5 per cent, prompted its department of agriculture to launch initiatives to boost dairy farming. “Cattle rearing is more profitable than maize farming, which continues to face challenges such as lack of market and also poor prices,” he says.
Another ex-maize farmer, Walter Mkhevi, was exploited by maize brokers, leaving little profits. He moved to dairy farming, and sells 90 litres to the society after he secured a loan and increased the number of dairy animals.
Now, he says, he has increased his milk supply, which has helped him to pay school fees for his children and even to purchase another land where he grows animal feeds.
Mkhevi says that he now uses four acres of his farm to plant maize for silage which feeds seven cows in a year where he makes Sh1.9 million, money he could not have realised from maize farming. “Selling milk directly to consumers in Kitale town through his dairy shop has brought in more profit as he sells a litre of raw milk at Sh50 or even more depending on the supply,” he says.