Esther Ndavu and her husband, Munyinthya Kimwele, are resting under an expansive tamarind tree near a dry river bed in Mathyakani village near the town of Mwingi town in the arid southeastern part of Kenya.
Each holds a young child — Esther has in her arms two-month-old Jackline Kambua and the husband is rocking three-year-old Grace Ndanu. Grace has a slight fever and both parents are concerned.
Esther, 38, and her family reached here at dawn and do not leave until after dusk. They make a living out of farming and are currently preoccupied with the task of getting three crates of fresh tomatoes to a trader at a market five kilometres away.
A bumpy start
Esther had a rough start in life. Her mother died when she was two-months-old. Her father left her at the mercy of sympathetic neighbours. At the age of 18, Esther dropped out of school and got married.
“We did not have a stable source of income,” she says. “My husband and I used to cut trees for charcoal or forage the bushes for pasture that we would sell to wealthy people, those who owned livestock.”
By 2009, Esther and Munyithya, 47, had a total of six children.
“Life was very hard. It wasn’t always easy to get buyers for the charcoal and pasture. We hardly ever had enough food and we could not afford to send our children to school,” she says.
Food on the table and new skills for tomorrow
Esther’s family was however selected to take part in a Food for Assets initiative — a project targeting families facing a severe lack of food.
Under the project, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) required families to work on community projects aimed at restoring degraded land or building water harvesting structures.
“One month after joining the project, we started getting some food,” says Esther. “We received maize, beans, vegetable oil and iodized salt in return for working three days a week.”
Esther was keen to practice her newly learned skills on her farm. Together with her husband, they embarked on planting fruit trees using dryland farming techniques taught through WFP’s resilience building activities.
“I did not have to worry about food for my family anymore; but on top of that, we were learning farming methods that could help us eventually sustain ourselves,” says Esther.
Esther’s farm borders the seasonal Enziu river. The two of them had to scoop water from hand-dug shallow wells along the dry river bed. Watering almost 100 trees was a day was backbreaking.
In-kind to cash transfers
In 2012, WFP shifted from giving families in-kind food to cash transfers. With this came training on budgeting and the good use of cash. With the first cash disbursement, Esther and her husband bought some food, but on top of that they paid for a donkey.
They no longer had to ferry cans of water on their backs. This allowed them to venture into vegetable farming.
With subsequent cash transfers and the little income from selling vegetables, Esther decided to sell the donkey and buy a water pump and some goats.
A game changer
With a few borrowed pipes and the second-hand water pump, Esther and her husband reduced their work load by half. They still watered crops using buckets, but ferried the water from a much shorter distance.
With more time on her hands, Esther diversified her crops. She planted kale, capsicum, onions, spinach, tomatoes and cowpeas. Her fruit trees include papaya, guava, avocado, banana, African custard apple and mangoes.
“Our breakthrough came in 2016. We harvested a very good crop of tomatoes and made 60,000 shillings [US$600] in sales,” says Esther. “At the same time, we had started selling fruits, especially papayas and water melon.”
With this new source of income, Esther replaced the ageing water pump and bought 20 goats to expand their income earning base.
WFP’s regular cash transfers helped Esther access farm inputs on credit as shopkeepers knew she would be able to repay at the end of each month.
Esther and Munyithya are now a resource for knowledge about farming. Neighbours constantly stream in for advice or to collect seeds and seedlings.
“I’m grateful for the support that I have received. It has transformed my life. I would like for my whole community to experience this change,” says Esther.
Esther and her family now farm four acres [1.6 hectares] of land. They draw from a 14-foot [4.2-metre] deep well along the river bed. With a strong water pump, she can irrigate her crop year-round.
Ten years and eight water pumps later, Esther and Munyithya are two very proud parents.
“When we joined the WFP project, we could not feed our children, let alone pay for school expenses,” says Munyithya. “Today, we have ten children to feed — three are in high school and four in primary school. As a father, I feel extremely proud that I can feed, clothe and educate our children.”.
“I used to cut down trees to make a living. Now I’m taking care of the trees and they are providing me with food,” says Esther.
WFP’s asset creation activities in Kenya are made possible through the support of: Australia, Canada, the European Commission, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Luxembourg, Multilateral Donors, Norway, Private Donors, the Russian Federation, Sweden, Switzerland, UN CERF and the United States of America.
Click here to read more about WFP’s work in Kenya