One Monday morning in 1999 along a country road in the bush of Bungoma County, Kenya, a middle-aged man slowed his walk to watch a woman milking her cow inside the fence of her shamba. He did not know this woman, but this was a familiar sight. And on this morning he saw this milking in a way that opened his eyes.
Wrapped in a head scarf with her kikoi hiked up above her knees, this young mama sat on one overturned bucket while she pressed her head into her cow’s shallow hip cavity and milked into the second bucket. He noticed she had tightened her cow’s tether by wrapping it several times around the fencepost to keep the cow still and close against the fence while she milked. The hide of the cow stretched tight across the hip bones. Even before the milking the udder sagged.
He saw that too soon this young mama finished milking and carried her half-filled bucket across the yard that had been grazed bare except in the corners, and then she disappeared into her house. Next to the house two school-aged children played under the acacia tree where an older mama sat shelling beans and the laundry hung on the line. This was a school day, but these children wore no shoes and no uniforms—they were going nowhere this day. He could find no signs of a man’s things in this yard. Soon the young mama came out of her house and set her milk can on her head—too lightly, he thought. She exchanged a few short words with the woman under the tree, opened the gate, and started down the road toward town.
The middle-aged man, Mr Meshak Maleche, walked on the other way, troubled by this sight. He’d seen variations of this well-worn routine in the months since their move to his wife’s village of Mbakalo. Mr Maleche had recently retired at 55 from his career as a school principal. They had bought an 18-acre farm on the edge of the village, next to the Catholic church and the market. After a career in education, he knew little about the daily realities of farming. He felt like an outsider in this town, a teacher studying what farmers do in their shambas and at the market, wondering what farming might bring into his life.
Yet Maleche knew it was pitiful how light her milk can was. With the weekend and the national holiday it had been at least three days since this woman could have taken her milk to the market. Her can should be full. He thought about what his friend and priest, Father Maruti, had told him yesterday about the women he visits who are too ashamed to come to church. Many are HIV widows. They often run out of money for school fees and can’t sell enough potatoes or milk or beans to buy a dress to wear to church. One cow overgrazing an old shamba can’t feed a small family.
This day Maleche, watching this woman milking her underfed cow, sees in his mind the many other farmers dotting this countryside with their underfed low-yield cows. Maleche has watched these women carry their cans to the market and wait in the sun along with the other women for the good fortune of someone who might choose to buy her milk this day. Some days some mamas sell none. Father Maruti also told him yesterday about dairy cooperatives, how in some places the milk and the profits are shared among the farmers in a way that guarantees a market. “This woman,” he thought, as she walked away under her milk can, “will walk most of an hour to sit most of a day for money she can’t count on. She knows no other way. She just prays. God’s will be done.”
When Maleche told him about his morning walk, Father Maruti said, “They would trust you with their milk money.”
Maleche said, “No. I’m not from this village. They could see I’m no dairy farmer like them. Why should they trust a school teacher from outside with what little they have?”
Father Maruti said, “They will trust you because you have managed the funds for two schools and for many years. I have told them about you. You know the transparent way to do business. You have earned the trust of families in other places. You are the one to show them how to work together, how their poor cows can bring school fees. If you show them how to create a secure market, they will follow.”
Maleche could not sleep at night. He traveled to Nairobi to learn about dairy cooperatives. He read about how it is done in Europe and elsewhere in Africa. He talked to dairy farmers at the market about what they do and what could be done. When they formed the cooperative, instead of naming Maleche the director, they named him the treasurer, because that was the role that would secure the trust of the farmers.
After several months of planning, they began with eight farmers from the church, including several men, who agreed to allow him to pick up their milk cans each day in his lorry, take them to the market, and sell the milk for them. At the end of the first week they were surprised when Maleche showed up at their homes with their milk payments. The payments were as good or better than when they had sold on their own. By the end of the first month, Maleche had recruited twice as many farmers and had twice as many cans in his lorry most mornings.
As the numbers of farmers and milk cans grew, the cash he had to carry also grew, and that made Maleche nervous. One day he found himself carrying KSh 350,000 home from the market ($3500) in his jacket pockets. He had no safe and no bank account for this milk money, so he hid it in his home. He worried that if anyone knew he was handling this amount of cash for the farmers, he would get robbed on the road. So Maleche told Father Maruti that now he, the priest, would have to make pastoral visits to the homes of these farmers to deliver their monthly milk payments. No one would suspect the priest of carrying cash under his robes, much less dare to rob him.
Soon they opened a bank account in the nearby town Naitiri. As the numbers of farmers in the cooperative grew, they started talking with each other about how to improve their milk yields. Most of the cows produced around 5 liters of milk a day. They used some of the income to buy feed for the most stressed cows, and their milk production increased. They learned to identify the sick cows and to get treatment for some of them, which also increased their yield. More milk for the group meant more money for the members. These farmers now talked to each other in new ways. Some of that money they agreed to spend on efficiencies, such as better milk cans, less wasted milk, access to refrigeration, medicine for infected cows, and healthier feed. Within a few years the average daily milk yield rose to 20 liters a day, four times what it had been.
Word spread. More farmers joined. At the market, Maleche learned about negotiating prices for milk. He started charging a price that allowed the cooperative to pay the farmers KSh 17/liter. That meant that the farmers barely made a dollar a day from their milk, but it was now a reliable dollar, every day. By the end of the month to have a reliable KSh 3000 ($30) was something.
As the quantity of the group’s daily milk supply increased, the quality also improved. He soon found he could sell more and charge more, which meant the farmers were earning 20 and soon KSh 25/liter. From the same cow, farmers were now earning two to three times the income they had been earning on their own. That made it attractive to keep more than one cow active for milking. So the total number of cows in the cooperative grew fast.
Now the Naitiri Dairy Farmers Co-operative Society Ltd, or NADAFA as it is called, pays KSh 35/liter. Coupled with the higher yields per cow, now around 30 liters a day for the most productive ones, this translates into a five to tenfold increase in income for some farmers since the early days of the cooperative. The only thing they had to invest for this big return was their trust in Mr Maleche.
As the cooperative grew, he had to be careful whom he hired to help him. First he needed a driver for a second lorry, and a trustworthy accountant to keep track of the milk coming in and the cash going out. Then he needed a manager to recruit new members, orient them to the procedures, and field their questions. Soon he was managing a team and a growing group of farmers. In some ways it was like managing a faculty and a student body.
Now NADAFA has grown to 8000 members with 47 collection stations in a 40 kilometer radius around Naitiri. A team of over 25 motor bike drivers collects the modern 10 liter milk jugs designed by the Gates Foundation twice a day and delivers them to the central processing station where the milk is measured, tested, pasteurized, and then distributed in a 5,000-liter dairy truck to urban markets in the region. The cooperative can serve as a lending bank for its members. It pays its farmers either directly into bank accounts or by digital M-Pesa accounts, averting the threat of theft and making its records transparent and available to its members for scrutiny. Last year NADAFA began providing veterinarian services to keep the cows healthy and more productive. It sells feed that increases the milk yield. And it trains its farmers to practice smart farming.
One farmer has educated his three children with three cows producing 20 liters a day. The NADAFA payments bringing him KSh 60,000 a month. One cow can educate one child through secondary school.
Now when Maleche walks through the town of Mbakalo, he sees these HIV widows in the tailor’s shop getting a church dress mended; he sees their children walking to school in the required uniforms; and he sees Father Maruti smiling because these women come to church now and they leave donations in the church basket and they sing in his choir. God’s will be done.
That’s a high return on a modest investment for every member. That’s a retired teacher harvesting cooperation from a community of underfed cows. That’s collective wealth created out of collective poverty. That’s Rifkin’s third industrial revolution taking hold in pockets of rural Kenya. And that’s the kind of contact that saves lives.