Milking the peace

Msafiri’s Editor-at-large Jackson Biko visited the district of West Pokot to investigate how the introduction of dairy farming has saved more than just the economy of the region

Milking_the_peaceErected on four picturesque hills in West Pokot are a series of crosses. The hills – Kamologon, Kiptapar, Kapsoit and Koisungur – mark the boundary that separates the Pokot and the Marakwet. These two Kenyan tribes (sub-groups of the larger Kalenjin tribe) aren’t known to be bosom buddies. They have always feuded. The most memorable and goriest of the fights was the 1998 bloodletting. Many died. A reluctant truce was called soon after this war and things calmed down to a semblance of normalcy. The elders from both sides, keen to avoid a repetition of that carnage, agreed to erect these crosses on the boundary that separates these two, as a deterrent.

“We hoped that both sides would see them and be reminded of the guiding principles of faith and God and good neighbourliness. Only God could really fix this,” an aged man mumbled in explanation. Yes, God might indeed, but first man had to show God that he was ready to give peace a chance.

The real problem wasn’t about faith. It was about land and cattle. Cattle rustling has been a part of the social and economic tapestry of the area for generations.

In 2000, as the horror of the ethnic bloodletting died down, The Mountain Policy was then drawn up by a council of elders from both sides. It stipulated as follows:

First Clause: If either tribe crosses a border and steals a cow, the offending tribe should rally everyone in their community and take a cow to the local GSU camp while they look for the stolen one. For every cow stolen another shall meanwhile be tethered at the GSU camp. In the event that the stolen cows are never recovered, the complainants shall be given the community cattle. The cow at the GSU will serve as security and a sign of goodwill to the offended tribe.

Second Clause: If a son raids the other tribe for cattle, his father will bring four cows for every cow stolen and tether them at the GSU camp until the stolen animals are recovered. The four cows represent one leg of each cow that ‘walked across the border’.

Third Clause: If someone is killed in the raid, 40 cows shall be handed over in compensation for each death.

Fourth Clause: For every gun used in a raid, the community shall pay five cows after the gun is recovered and surrendered to the GSU camp.

These measures have, no doubt, brought a welcome peace between these two tribes, but the major chess-move that seemed to have noosed the problem of cattle rustling in West Pokot is the introduction of Friesian cattle. The Pokot and Marakwet have kept the Zebu breed for generations because of their resilience. As a particularly hardy breed, they are also easy to rustle and remove over great distances. They also need open grazing pastures, which in turn has fuelled conflict over grass in the dry season.

The introduction of the Friesians turned the politics of cattle rustling on its head. Unlike the Zebu, the Friesians produce milk, which has created a viable dairy business opportunity in the region. Friesian cattle can each produce about 30 litres of milk a day, be fed in paddocks and thus made inaccessible to rustlers and harder to drive great distances once taken. On the tail of this great shift has come one of the great economic success stories of West Pokot: the Lelan Highlands Dairies Limited.


West Pokot conjures up images of a sprawling, dry, dusty, acacia-dotted vista – a place permanently suspended in a haze of dust and heat. Well, it’s the exact opposite. It’s a place of beautiful green rolling hills and even greener vegetation, with fairly cold weather almost all year round. And this is the home of Lelan Highlands Dairies.

As the history of its inception goes, for a while its founders travelled to cattle and agricultural shows to seek ideas on how they would make money from rearing Friesian cattle. It was on one of these quests that they were introduced to the East Africa Dairy Development project, EADD.

EADD is a Project of Heifer International in partnership with International Livestock Research, World Agroforestry Centre, Technoserve, and Africa Breeders Services. It is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its core mandate is to develop the dairy sector by assisting farmers to make better use of their resources to make profits and better their livelihoods. Their approach is to deliver a comprehensive package of services such as artificial insemination, veterinary care and animal husbandry, among other processes. The hub is managed by Dairy Farmers Business Associations, who promote services like transportation of milk and access to Agrovet shops. Training, exchange visits and the provision of manuals reinforce the farmers’ understanding of how to improve both quality and quantity of the milk they produce.

Since 2009 they have seen the formation of 68 co-operatives in the four countries they operate in – Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and recently Tanzania. In five years they have mobilised over 200,000 farmers who have collectively bulked and sold some 297m litres of milk at US$102.8m. It projects to reach another 136,000 farmers by 2018.

Lelan Highlands Dairies Ltd, with the help of EADD, was founded in 2009 in Murkokoi. While visiting their modest headquarters recently (it houses a 10,000-litre chilling tank) I saw troops of farmers rolling up on donkeys and motorbikes to deliver milk in jerry cans in the morning. The cooling plant starting capital was funded through an interest free loan from EADD that covered 30 per cent of required equity; the farmers raised 10 per cent and acquired the remainder 60 per cent from a commercial bank where EADD provided a guarantee. The farmers are the key stakeholders.

The co-operative is a thriving enterprise, with close to 3200 farmers as members, who deliver up to 15,000 litres daily to the chilling plant – a great milestone, considering they were bringing a paltry 657 litres a day when they started out. Because of the surplus production the co-operative opened three more cooling plants in Chetkono, Kaptalamwa and Tapach, with a servicing capacity of 13,800 litres in total. All the milk is sold to the processor, Brookside Dairies Company, who pay Ksh40 a litre for it, Ksh35.80 of which goes to the farmer and the rest to the co-operative. Every month it pays out over Ksh20million for milk delivered to its plant by farmers.

Mr Kenneth Lomaipong, the Chairman of Lelan Highlands Dairies Limited, who in the region is widely referred to simply as ‘Chairman’, is thrilled at the strides the co-operative has taken. The board has 11 members (two of whom are women). “In the same spirit of peace, we decided that there should be a balance of ethnicity in the co-operative: for instance, the Vice-Chairman is a Marakwet. In all departments, for every position held by a Pokot, the deputy is Marakwet and vice versa.”

“But over and above this ethnic balance,” Chairman continues, “the co-operative has greatly improved the living standards of our people.”

However, there was a fresh hurdle presented by this economic growth. With money now flowing in, thanks to modern and improved farming methods, Lelan needed a financial service. But the nearest suitable institution was over 70km away, in Kapenguria. The roads were bad, the cars plying them even worse. The co-operative soon acquired a licence to start a savings and credit service with the aim of managing the transactions from the sale of milk.

Now Lelan Financial Services has almost 700 savings accounts and a Ksh15million loan book. The bank has taken on six full-time employees. What all this has done to the region is transformative. Before 2008, for instance, there were no cars in the region: now there are over 40 matatus. Even Lelan’s Dairy Company general manager Benson Lingatukei and the cooling plant manager David Longaripuo now have cars, and of course, so does the Chairman. Motorbikes are present in their hundreds. So are donkeys – still the most suitable mode of transport for farmers who come from areas with a poor road network. Even mobile networks have been attracted by these successes and have put up a communication mast.

One of the people who is delivering the milk this cold morning is 25-year-old Jonathan Rotich. “Lelan Highlands Dairies has greatly improved my life and that of my friends,” he says, while untying the jerry cans of milk. “Previously we would engage in antisocial activities to survive or to kill boredom. Who would have dreamt that I could buy a motorbike for Ksh99,000?”

The project doesn’t remain without challenges. Roads are a key issue. “Our road network in the rugged mountain is not good for business,” exclaims Chairman. “It takes an average of eight hours for milk to reach the dairy from the farms. Sometimes farmers lose revenue when the milk gets spoilt during transit.”

A 25km journey from Kapenguria to Kabaichibichi, Pokot South, costs Ksh200. From Kabaichibichi to Kapsait, where Leland Highlands Dairies Ltd is situated, a mere 20km costs Ksh250 by motorbike because matatus don’t ply the route. A distance of 45km will then cost the farmer Ksh450. When it rains the situation is worse. On top of this, finding high-nutrition animal feed is always a challenge, and farmers have to rely mainly on natural pastures to feed their animals. The agrovet and Artificial Insemination inputs are sourced from afar, thereby affecting cost.

These challenges are still not as bad as those they faced before. The people of West Pokot have been through worse. Dairy farming has had a great impact on their standard of living, but also on the social fabric. If you walk around Lelan and nearby areas you will be hard-pressed to find a drunken man staggering by the roadside, as is common in most rural centres, or even someone smoking a cigarette. No shop sells liquor or cigarettes, as the result of a decree issued by the local elders to curb vices. And it’s this ethos that makes Lelan an emblem of what a common cause and a shift in mindset can do to empower a community.