Tuesday, 01 June 2010

Homa Bay Ewing Grinder Pilot Project

Written by

By Kathleen Graham, Africa Committee Volunteer  

Beneath enormous African skies the rolling mountainsides of far Western Kenya are lush green with the spring rains.  Tribes of farmers who eke out a living far off the tourist track anxiously watch the crops they planted in February – will the rain be enough, erasing droughts of recent years; or too much, drowning the beautifully emerging fields of maize, soya beans, sorghum, and ground nuts?  As I move around the area where a year ago I introduced Ewing grinders I am struck that these farmers’ concern for the impact of weather on their livelihood echoes precisely that of Minnesota farmers.  And there all notion of shared typicality ends.

Homa Bay farmers till and weed and harvest by hand.  They furrow their brows when asked about the last harvest, uniformly noting that adequate moisture is not enough, as they cannot afford fertilizer, the crop could be much better.  Their homes have neither electricity nor indoor plumbing, and most have packed dirt floors.  Water is carried in jerry cans from boreholes or rivers kilometers away.  The daily diet consists of the staple ugali, a baked corn flour concoction that supplies calories but inadequate nutrition.  And as if I needed further confirmation that life here is radically different from whence I came, retired teacher and training participant Fred Aloo introduces me to his family of twelve children and two wives, before we travel to meet his neighbor and this group’s coordinator, John Oyaya Ogutu, who has thirty children with his four wives.

I ignored the temptation to indulge my curiosity and delve into the fascinating back stories and instead focused on the reason I was lurching for hours over unpaved roads and paths in a vehicle loaned by the venerable crop research organization ICRISAT.  A year earlier I had accepted the invitation of ICRISAT’S resident Nairobi manager Richard Jones, to collaborate with a PhD agronomist from Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Nasambu Okoko, to train representatives of several farmers’ groups chosen by Nasambu how to use the Ewing grinder.  I had six Ewing grinders, purchased by family and friends, stored in Kenya.  Richard and Nasambu were interested in adding value to the ground nut crop they had partnered to introduce to farmers’ groups in the Kisii/Homa Bay area.  A pilot project, to test the usefulness and acceptability of the grinder, and the potential for adding value to a bare crop, was born.

At the 2009 two-day training each participant learned to disassemble, assemble, and clean the Ewing grinders.  Each took a turn processing local crops – g-nuts, sorghum, finger millet, cow peas and “green gram,” learning to adjust the burrs so the final product would be just the right texture for local taste.  And each participant was tested – could s/he stand up and teach the teachers what s/he had learned??  All passed, some barely.  Would they be able to convey a few key Ewing principles to their farmer members?

I had returned for the real test.  How have the six grinders that were loaned to the participants’ groups been used?  Armed with a questionnaire that seeks answers to questions suggested by a dozen people over five years, each day I traveled 40, 50 even 70 kilometers off the paved road that runs from Homa Bay on the swampy shores of Lake Victoria to Kisii in the highlands, to drone through my evaluation form. I had no idea how remote their farms and groups actually were.

Richard, Nasambu and I had readily agreed on desired outcomes.  We were most interested in 1) improved nutrition, bolstering the ubiquitous daily starch with nuts and more nutritious grains and 2) income generation, either through product sales or service grinding.  We can document both outcomes, in at least some and sometimes all families, of all groups who had a representative attend the training workshop. In one group of 24, the Koga Farmers’ Self Help Group, in addition to the two men who act as leader/coordinators, eight of the “mothers” (twenty of the group members are women with children) are making nut paste and selling it. They use the profit for school fees for their children.

Each of the six groups is different, in terms of crops processed and rules for grinder use. Koga processes just ground nuts, and a little soy.  Most other groups have experimented widely, with soy, sorghum, finger millet, green gram, the “new” crop grain amaranth, and even dried butternut squash and broken rice.  Because the quantities of these “designer” flours are so small, they could not interest the commercial posho (corn) mills to process them, so the friendly-sized Ewing allows them to experiment with new ingredients.  Another difference – while Koga pays those who crank the grinder and those who carry the paste to market, at the Hekima Widows and Orphans Self Help Group, they organize volunteers to do all the roasting and cranking, and the group applies the profits to projects they devise, for example. to support local orphans.

For a ten year veteran of Ewing grinder work in East Africa, what is so impressive about this trip is the consistency of grinder use among the groups and the quality of maintenance of the grinders.  Never have all the grinders been so well cleaned, so well-cared for, so respected.  The growing dependency of the groups on the grinders is actually a little unnerving.  What if a part fails, like the group that sorrowfully produced a deformed helix?  What will happen to the growing nut paste business or the millet flour service grinding if the grinder is down for days or weeks?

The other joy of the trip is the visible pride with which group members present the “new” foods they have discovered, beyond the popular nut paste.   As a result of having the grinder available, and the communal interactions it has fostered, several groups make a nutritious porridge, using sorghum, finger millet, cassava, amaranth, soya beans, and a small amount of nut paste, flavored with citrus juice and sugar; others a soya beverage;  “finger rolls” from sorghum and millet; and cakes, a totally new item.  The warm cake we were proudly served by St. Florence SHG, which looked like a light gingerbread, had soya, grain amaranth, and g-nut paste.

Nasambu Okoko was so excited by the food experiments we saw that she vowed to create recipes and share them among the other farmers’ groups with whom she works.  Moving forward, these groups are now offered the opportunity to buy the grinders, for a discounted price, and that money will be used to furnish more grinders for more area farmers.  CTI will establish a “parts depot” at Mrs. Okoko’s office.  And by next year it is planned that all the groups will be asked to keep the detailed records to reflect volume, income and profit that some groups already have.

Small but significant inroads for 120 families off the end of the tarmac!  Replicate??  Volunteer!