Nairobi — Launched in 2014, Natiira Ateni Self Help Group is located in Turkana County, more than 700 kilometres north of Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Natiira Ateni is a phrase in the Turkana language, which means "a place of many acacia trees". As the name suggests, the area is semi-arid, with an alluvial sand and clay soil terrain, where survival is often precarious.
Turkana County borders South Sudan and Ethiopia to the north and east and Uganda to the west. The area is well known internationally, as the cradle of mankind, where Kenyan archeologists discovered evidence of early hominids and established a research center, the Turkana Basin Institute. Lake Turkana - lying along a part of the Rift Valley - is the largest desert lake in the world, with a dozen ancient volcano craters and cones. It is a Unesco World Heritage site and a draw for tourists. But Turkana has also been infamous locally for hunger and starvation, due to the long periods of drought, and for dangerous cattle rustling practices between pastoralist communities in neighbouring counties and countries.
With cattle the main source of livlihood, droughts fueled insecurity and conflict. The people of Natira town and nearby areas have often been forced to travel as much as several hours to purchase vegetables to eat. Undernutrition is a chronic problem, making children, especially, more vulnerable to disease.
Keen to make a difference after witnessing the effects of drought and insecurity
Augustine Adapal, 22, is the enterprise manager of Natiira Ateni. The group has over 100 members and is governed by an elected board of nine members.
Adapal is keen to make a difference after witnessing the effects of drought and insecurity that has pushed his community to the brink of survival. He is also passionate about changing the stereotypical representation of Turkana, which is often portrayed with images of impoverished children, dead livestock and dry river beds.
"We all know that the Turkana region is an arid area that suffers long periods of drought. The cross-border conflicts in Uganda and South Sudan also exacerbated the situation and forced many people to move where they can find relief," says Adapal .
Natiira Ateni is changing this narrative by ensuring that the community is living a sustainable life by ensuring that it has food and water for crop and animal farming.
As we speak on the telephone, Adapal tells me that he is fighting the scorching sun with his cap. He also tells me there is a looming dust storm on the horizon. He quickly makes his way to his office located within the two-acre lush and green farm, which might be mistaken as an oasis in a desert.
He informs me that due to the social-distancing regulations to stop the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, a small group of members are working on the farm at a time. They are weeding, harvesting spinach, shelling groundnuts (peanuts) to sale and installing new irrigation pipes in the farm.
As the enterprise manager of Natira Ateni Self Help Group, he has brought much needed hope and energy to his community.
Cattle rustling contributes to rising poverty levels
"Before we started farming, the members of Natiira were pastoralists who were mainly dependent on getting an income from meat and milk from their livestock. Livestock is a considerable store of wealth. Some of the men in the group were also cattle raiders." says Augustine.
A 2019 study by the Regional Organised Crime Observatory for East Africa (ENACT) on cattle rustling in East Africa and the Horn of Africa region, concluded that "Communities plagued by cattle rustling face a plethora of problems, including insecurity and the loss of their livelihood, which contributes to the rising poverty rates in the area. In one 2017 incident in Laikipia in Kenya, 10,000 pastralists made away with over 135,000 heads of cattle."
According to ENACT coordinator Deo Gumba: "Traditionally, cattle rustling has been a practice predominantly practised by pastoral and nomadic communities in east Africa for two main purposes. As a way of restocking after a severe drought or disease that killed their livestock; and the second was to enable suitors (young warriors) to acquire cattle to pay the 'bride price' required in order to marry. It is now being practised for commercial reasons and through criminal networks that cross communal and international borders, rendering cattle rustling a transnational (criminal) act."
Providing alternate and complementary means of survival - the purpose of Natiira Self Help - not only reduces hunger and illnesses, but also contributes to peacebuilding in the area.
Adapal began his journey with Natiira Ateni while he was still a student in secondary school in 2014. His mother, who was a founding member of the group, always invited him to join group activities such as planting and watering crops during the school holidays. This inspired Augustine to be a community advocate. His efforts have led to a successful farm project and a cohesive community.
In Turkana, illiteracy levels are high, with only half of the school-going children enrolled. The children and youth in the area have few opportunities compared to other counties in Kenya. Illiteracy has resulted in poor dissemination of information in the community, such as weather forecasts which could help communities respond more quickly to the effects of increasing droughts due to climate change.
According to Wycliffe Juma from Cezam & Associates Ltd, a professional accounting and business consulting firm contracted by the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) to assist with the monitoring and evaluation of a grant to the Natiira Ateni project. "When the farming project started, the Natiira Ateni group relied on rai-fed agriculture, and most of the crops failed. Natiira applied for a grant of [less than U.S. $100,000] from USADF, which they got, and it helped them address their challenges."
Fresh from high school and with a passion to make a difference
USADF is an independent U.S. government agency established by Congress to invest in African grassroots organizations, entrepreneurs and small-and medium-sized enterprises. USADF's investments promote local economic development by increasing incomes, revenues and jobs. Using a community-led development approach, the institution provides seed capital and local project-management assistance to African-owned and led enterprises, which are addressing some of Africa's biggest challenges around food insecurity, insufficient energy access, and unemployment, particularly among women and youth.
"Through the USADF support, we drilled a borehole in our two-acre farm, and also installed an irrigation system that has enabled us to successfully grow crops all year round. In the farm we grow perennial and annual crops such as; legumes, cowpeas, groundnuts, green pepper, spinach kales and tomatoes," says Adapal. The borehole (well) and the irrigation system are integral to the project's achievements. Drip irrigation is the most efficient method of watering plants in arid areas. An average water-sprinkler system has an efficiency of around 75-85 percent. Drip irrigation, in contrast, has efficiencies in excess of 90 percent.
Natiira used a portion of the grant funds to train their farmers on soft skills, such as basic accounting, good agricultural practices. They even organized an exchange visit to other irrigation-fed farms and studied best practises in dry-land agriculture. The group also invested in capacity building for its youth and recruited two young apprentices from the community to train alongside the founding enterprise manager Emily Chepchumba.
Fresh from high school and with a passion to make a difference in his community, Adapal was one of the trainees in the project. He quickly built skills in leadership, project management, bookkeeping and reporting, and in 2019 he was promoted to be Natiira Ateni's enterprise manager.
No longer a 500 kilometre trip for a vegetable!
"The farming project has transformed the life of my community, and we now do not rely on relief food and handouts" he says. "The members consume 20 percent of the harvest, and the rest is sold to the neighbouring community, which no longer has to rely on vegetable supplies from Kitale which is over 500 kilometres away. On a monthly basis the group sells over U.S. $5,000 worth of produce to Natiira town and neighbouring Kakuma refugee camp."
From their sale of vegetables, members generate income to buy other foodstuffs they do not produce. They can also pay school fees for their children and meet other basic needs including health care. The surrounding community fetches water for their household use from the bore hole. The Natiira community has helped to createg better livelihoods through more sustainable farming that produces stable jobs and higher incomes.
Effects of Covid-19 pandemic on the farm operations
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected day-to-day operations at the farm. Due to stay-at-home and social distancing measures, not all the members can visit or help out in the farm.
"The travel restrictions in Kenya have created a bigger demand for food in Turkana County, as most food trucks from Kitale town are unable to deliver food to local markets. This shortage of food has created a bigger demand for fresh vegetables such as spinach, kales and tomatoes from the Natiira farm," says Adapal.
"We are now selling more vegetables to our local market, and if the travel restrictions persist we will be unable to meet the local demand. We have also seen increased interest from other community members who are not part of the group. They are keen to join us or for us to train them on how to set up new irrigation schemes in their farms," he says.
New threat - a swarn of locusts can eat as much in a day as 35,000 people
Adapal tells me they are on the lookout for desert locusts that have recently been spotted in nearby Lodwar town and are worried that they might attack thei farm.
According to the Locust Watch by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, "more swarms are continuing to form and have been seen flying to the northwest. Control measures include aerial spraying, surveillance vehicles and vehicles mounted with sprayers".
The locusts are a new threat to food security. A swarm of one kilometre can eat the same amount of food in one day as a 35,000 people. This is a big worry to the group who have just recovered from a long drought that was recently followed by damaging floods, when River Turkwell, empties into Lake Turkana burst its banks and caused fatalities and destruction, sweeping away homes and infrastructure during April's short rainy season.
Our conversation is cut short, as Adapal has to leave, after receiving an alert from one of the community members that raiders have been sighted. A fortnight ago, suspected Ethiopian cattle rustlers allegedly shot and killed a woman near River Natodomeri in Turkana County.
Future plans for Natiira Ateni
Natiira Ateni hopes to enroll more members in the group and to expand the project from a two-acre farm to a ten-acre farm. Using sales proceeds and funding from new partners, the group aspires to buy an autorickshaw - called a Tuktuk) - or a motorbike to aid in the delivery of fresh farm produce to the market.