Weathering The Drought
IESC Volunteers Support Kenyan Dairy Cooperative to Survive and Thrive Despite Drought Conditions
The ongoing drought in Kenya is the longest the country has experienced in at least 40 years, an effect of the evolving climate crisis. The current drought has left an estimated 4.1 million Kenyans food insecure. According to the Agriculture Ministry, over 1.5 million livestock have been reported dead and many smallholder dairy farmers have lost their livelihoods. Located in the semi-arid region of Tharaka Nithi County, Wega Dairy Cooperative has not been spared.
Due to the drought, two-thirds of Wega’s 10,000-strong member base stopped supplying raw milk to the cooperative, with an additional 2,300 members opting to sell milk directly to the informal market. A quarter of Wega Dairy’s board members resigned, and because of inflation, the producer organization struggled to meet its debt obligations to its creditors. Wega was forced to lay off three of its 15 staff members and another four were in jeopardy of losing their jobs. By August 2021, Wega Dairy’s management was actively considering dissolving the cooperative on account of imminent bankruptcy and reduced milk collection from members due to the unrelenting drought. The livelihoods of 10,000 farmers and their families were at stake.
In September 2021, Wega Cooperative’s chairman called IESC’s Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Kenya office, saying, “We need help to dodge a bullet… we believe with F2F support we can figure a way out.” Wega needed urgent assistance to survive the drought and reengineer their market strategy to avoid closure. Together with Wega’s management, IESC’s F2F team designed a set of six strategic volunteer interventions to assist in its turnaround. Delivered in stages, the approach involved institutional capacity building and simultaneous direct-to-farmer support.
Wega first received F2F volunteer support from U.S. volunteer expert (USVE) John Rushing who noted the need for re-strategizing and re-branding. Later, Kenyan local volunteer expert (LVE) Miriam Wangui and USVE William Nichols supported Wega to develop a new business model along with guidance on re-branding the organization, leading to a name change. A follow-up volunteer assignment helped Wega develop a new strategic business plan that outlined its market repositioning. The board and management were trained in governance and strategies to improve membership, resulting in the return of 3,000 smallholder farmers over the last 18 months.
Through three more F2F volunteer assignments, farmers received direct support and training to improve milk productivity and boost dairy herd reproduction under drought conditions. IESC volunteers trained farmers on dairy food safety and hygienic milk handling, focusing on adopting low-cost innovations and technologies to avoid on-farm milk losses and health issues that lead to milk rejection. With these interventions, milk losses dropped from an average of 10 – 17% to 0.5 – 3.0%, far less than the national milk loss average of 7%. In addition, to boost on-farm milk production, over 300 farmers were trained as trainers to champion effective breeding and reproduction.
“I wanted to sell my cows and do away with dairy farming. The training and support I have received from F2F volunteers have enabled me to survive the drought and improve my herd size. I now have four cows from the initial two I kept. My children can now go to school, and I am happy to be a member of Wega Dairy,” says Mary Nthige, a 37-year-old mother of five and one of the trainers trained in enhanced breeding and production. Mary has since on-trained and mentored over 500 farmers.
Wega Dairy Cooperative held an in-person Annual General Meeting in December 2022. These meetings are routine for any dairy cooperative, but this marked a significant milestone for the producer organization. A better-managed and more transparent Wega Dairy Cooperative now receives over 150,000 liters of milk every month, up from 33,000 liters in May 2021, resulting in a five-fold increase in revenue from milk sales. Three additional chilling centers that were previously shut down have since been revived. Wega’s agro-vet sales center and feed milling center have also reopened. With high-quality milk being produced, Wega’s members are now able to sell their milk for 40% more per liter. The three staff members who lost their jobs in 2021 have been rehired. In the words of the Wega’s chairman, “With the help of F2F Kenya and other partners, Wega has managed to dodge a deadly bullet”.
The American people, through USAID, have provided economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide for more than 50 years. The John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer Program (F2F) provides technical assistance from U.S. volunteers to farmers, farm groups, agribusinesses, and other agriculture sector institutions in developing and transitional countries with the goal of promoting sustainable improvements in food security and agricultural processing, production, and marketing.