17 December 1999



When Steve Lewis took on a

two-year task improving cow

milk yields in Kenya as part

of a VSO project, he knew

it wouldnt be easy. And

it certainly wasnt, as he

explained to David Cousins

JAMESTON, a quiet village nestling near Tenby on the Pembrokeshire coast, is about as different from Kapseret, Kenya as you could get. The one is restrained, damp and comfortable, the other hot, dry and a bit wild. But for Steve Lewis both places count as home.

How he came to be in Kenya is a long story. The son of a beef farmer, by 1996 he had an NCA and an HND under his belt, as well as lots of practical experience. This included working for the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research as head calf rearer and later helping farmers with grant forms for the Welsh Office. He travelled a lot, too, to far-flung places like Thailand and India and Japan.

But then the time came (as it sometimes does when youre in your 20s) to decide what to do with his life. He had heard of VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and in late 1997 applied to them to become a farm management adviser.

VSO may be a charity, but it puts potential advisers through a pretty thorough vetting process. The ability to stay cool-headed when confronted with practical problems is highly sought after.

"The funny thing was that though they wanted people with college qualifications in agriculture, it was my National Proficiency Testing Scheme certificates in beef, sheep, cows and tractors they were much more interested in. They were very keen on knowing that you could solve practical problems without panicking. There were even questions along the lines of: How youd get 20 people across a river when the bridge is broken and youve only got a few lengths of wood to hand?"

Chosen few

Out of 50,000 people who apply to VSO each year, only 1000 are picked. So Steve was delighted when a letter arrived telling him he was one of the chosen few and that he would be personally sponsored by ex-NFU president and VSO council member Sir Simon Gourlay. But he had to wait several months before a suitable placement came up – to work with the Kapseret Community Development Group (KCDG), a 19-farm co-operative 200 miles west of Nairobi, to improve cow milk yields.

There was more learning to do first. A series of courses in the UK taught him and the other 20 volunteers the building skills needed to construct basic barns, the diplomatic skills needed to deal with people from wholly different cultures and religions and some basic swahili vocabulary to communicate with the locals (English is widely spoken in Kenya, but not on farms).

For all his experience of other countries, Steve found the early days of his stint in Kenya something of a shock. Not because he encountered the poverty and malnutrition found in many other African countries. The farmers that make up KCDG are in African terms a thriving community. Farms vary from small units with typically two acres and a two or three cattle to ones of 100 acres with 30 or 40 cattle. An average of 1120mm (44in) of rain falls reliably during the Mar-to-Sept wet season. Milk is sold to a dairy owned by one of the KCDG members, project leader Gilbert Bor, and payment received goes towards housing and schooling. Everyone is well-dressed and looks pretty happy with life.

But in agricultural terms, farming communities like KCDG are crying out for an injection of basic know-how – chiefly in animal health and nutrition and crop-growing.

"Cows were typically giving 1-2 litres a cow/day," says Steve. "They were walking 6-10 miles a day to get to the grazing areas, there was no oestrus detection and 80% of the bulls have sexually transmitted diseases. There was no notion of genetic improvement, or of nutrition, no foot-trimming, no worming, no herd records"


Some advances had been made. Tick fever kills a cow stone-dead in three days so all cows are dipped every Saturday morning against ticks. Government-sponsored artificial insemination takes place, but since farmers dont know when cows are in heat it has had only limited success.

Changing all this was never going to be easy, but Steve visited all the farmers to explain basic steps they could take to improve their cows health and milk output. But though his advice seemed to be welcomed and taken on board, he would often return a few days later to find that it had been ignored.

A change of tack was obviously needed. It came in the form of a demonstration plot that Steve decided to set up as a way of showing how simple changes could improve farm output – and quality of life – hugely. Moreover, these changes are designed to be sustainable, affordable and capable of being carried over with local supplies, ie not reliant on imported western high-tech equipment. For instance:

&#8226 Taking calves from the cow after 2-3 days (rather than leaving them to suckle for up to 18 months) improved milk yield hugely.

&#8226 Maize stems, normally thrown away, can be chopped up and mixed with molasses and stored in a drum for 12 hours. This gives a good feed that increases milk output immediately.

&#8226 Simple cow cubicles with a wooden cover give cows somewhere comfortable and cool to lie

&#8226 Watching cows for the onset of oestrus for 20 minutes, three times a day, combined with an explanation of a basic 365-day calving index, means farmers know when a calf will arrive.

&#8226 Teaching the basics of fodder crop nutrition, ie that slurry and muck reapplied to the ground increases soil fertility.

&#8226 Planting of high-yielding Napier grass gave a feed that could be chopped and fed fresh.

&#8226 The bottom leaves of the maize plants, normally thrown away, can be ensiled to provide a nutritious feed much liked by the cows.

&#8226 Mineral blocks (too expensive to buy) can be constructed for a fifth of the off-the-shelf cost from lime, molasses, salt etc.

&#8226 Introducing chickens to the farms yielded two benefits. It improved diets in the village and the eggs produced yielded an extra income.

Big success

The demonstration farm was a big success. Kenyan agriculture may appear backward in European terms, but farmers here are keen to learn. Some walked from up to 15 miles away to see the new techniques in action. Moreover, Sir Jeffrey James, the British High Commisioner to Kenya, will officially open the demonstration farm in the coming months.

Women do much of the work in Kenyas rural communities, so it was as important to introduce new techniques to them as to the menfolk. Steves fiancee Penny Cowley, who was working on the same project, taught the women to grow pumpkins, aubergines, cucumbers, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes and how to cook them. The result, again, was an improved diet and a product that can be sold to earn extra income.

With milk yields some 400% higher than before they started, and the farmers and their families enjoying a wider diet and increased spending power, Steve and Penny feel they have been able to make a worthwhile difference to the lives of those in Kapseret.

Their stint in Kenya will end in October 2000, but a new volunteer will take over to maintain and build on the changes made.

VSO is always on the lookout for experienced agriculturalists prepared to help on similar projects. If youre interested, phone 0181-780 7500.

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