CANAAN A DESERT BUT FULL OF MILK, FRESH KENYAN STU­DENTS LEARN IN FOOD: NOVATION IN IS­RAEL

‘Canaan’ is widely used in Kenyan pol­i­tics as a metaphor for lib­er­a­tion from op­pres­sion to pros­per­ity, but the ac­tual place is a mar­vel of agrotech­nol­ogy

The Star (Kenya) - - Big Read | Agricultural Revolution - BY JOHN MUCHANGI @jo­munji

Their jour­ney to ‘Canaan’ took less than six hours, fol­lowed by some four more hours to the desert.

Once in­side the desert, the Kenyans took an in­creas­ingly lonely road to Arava, the dry area south of the Dead Sea basin, which forms part of the bor­der be­tween Is­rael to the west and Jor­dan to the east.

It’s part of the re­gion his­tor­i­cally known as Canaan, now most of it in­side of Is­rael.

Ken­neth Chep­kwony was ec­static and did not let the jour­ney waste away, as he cap­tured as much as pos­si­ble on his cam­era.

The less than a day’s jour­ney is said to have taken Bi­b­li­cal fig­ures Moses and Joshua 40 years — to de­liver peo­ple just from Egypt to Canaan — ev­i­dence of how mod­ern tech­nol­ogy has col­lapsed dis­tances.

‘Canaan’ is widely used in Kenyan pol­i­tics as a metaphor for lib­er­a­tion from op­pres­sion to pros­per­ity.

Be­sides Chep­kwony were two other Kenyans, Mo­hammed Abdi and Ron­ald Diang’a — all 24 years old.

In the last two hours, the land sloped gen­tly down south.

Al­though the re­gion is scenic, with colour­ful cliffs and sharp-topped moun­tains, in re­al­ity, it is a harsh, ex­pan­sive desert known as the Negev.

This part of the desert, the Kenyans learned, is called Arava or Arabah, which in He­brew means “des­o­late and dry area”.

The south­ern Arava is hot and dry and vir­tu­ally with­out rain.

It is the far­thest thing from the prover­bial ‘Canaan’ they had in mind, a land flow­ing with milk and honey.

Noth­ing can grow here un­less it is made to. And that is what the three 24-year-old Kenyans are here for.

HIGH­EST-YIELD­ING DAIRY COWS

The three are among 102 Kenyan ben­e­fi­cia­ries of an in­tern­ship pro­gramme by the Arava In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Agri­cul­ture and Train­ing in Is­rael.

The cen­tre was es­tab­lished in 1994 to ex­pose dif­fer­ent stu­dents from de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to the so­phis­ti­cated agri­cul­tural tech­nolo­gies avail­able here every year.

The Kenyans im­mersed them­selves in the re­gion for 12 months to gain ad­vanced knowl­edge in agri­cul­ture and food pro­duc­tion.

The last group re­turned home in June, yearn­ing to con­trib­ute to Kenya’s agri­cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion.

“I come from an agri­cul­tural fam­ily that re­lies solely on nat­u­ral rain­fall. Sadly, such tra­di­tional ap­proaches have hin­dered local com­mu­ni­ties from grow­ing food suf­fi­ciently. This in­spired me to ap­ply to Ai­cat,” says Chep­kwony, who grad­u­ated from Jomo Keny­atta University of Agri­cul­ture and Tech­nol­ogy in 2015 with a de­gree in An­i­mal Health and Pro­duc­tion Pro­cesses.

Al­though Arava is a dried-out desert, the main source of liveli­hood is ad­vanced agri­cul­ture.

The re­gion has roughly 500 farm­ing fam­i­lies who pro­duce 60 per cent of Is­rael’s fresh veg­etable ex­ports and 10 per cent of its cut flower ex­ports, de­spite an av­er­age yearly rain­fall of only one inch.

Ai­cat usu­ally pairs stu­dents with farm­ers who have con­trib­uted to agri­cul­tural in­no­va­tion in Is­rael.

The stu­dents take classes at the cen­tre two days every week, then join the farm­ers for the rest of the week.

Chep­kwony was at­tached to a dairy and dates farm within Arava.

Re­search shows cows in Is­rael, mostly reared in the desert, pro­duce the high­est amount of milk per an­i­mal in the world, with an av­er­age of 12,000 litres per cow per year, out­per­form­ing the US and the EU.

“Most oper­a­tions are com­put­erised, feed­ing is com­puter-con­trolled, milk­ing too. Cows walk with a com­puter tag on the leg, which gives all the his­tory of the cow, the milk you ex­pect, and its full phys­i­o­log­i­cal sta­tus,” Chep­kwony says.

A cow in Kenya pro­duces an av­er­age of less than 5,000 litres a year, ac­cord­ing to the live­stock de­part­ment.

But Chep­kwony be­lieves Kenya can still catch up.

THRIV­ING UN­DER THREAT

The three stu­dents have founded an ini­tia­tive they call KenArava Group,

DESERT-BRED COWS IN IS­RAEL PRO­DUCE 12,000 LITRES PER COW PER YEAR, WHILE KENYAN COWS PRO­DUCE LESS THAN 5,000 LITRES PER YEAR

through which they hope to prac­tise in Kenya what they learnt in Is­rael.

They re­cently met Agri­cul­ture CS Willy Bett, in­dus­tri­al­ist Chris Kirubi and a host of other in­flu­en­tial Kenyans.

“We have been there. We have the ex­pe­ri­ence to trans­form our coun­try to food se­cure. We also want to of­fer ex­ten­sion ser­vices,” says Ron­ald Diang’a.

He was at­tached to a pep­per pro­duc­ing farm in a Moshav — a type of co­op­er­a­tive agri­cul­tural set­tle­ment — for the one year.

He learned that Is­raelis have used their back­ground as a na­tion un­der threat to pro­pel growth.

This am­bi­tion born from that anx­i­ety has made them a world­wide leader in agri­cul­ture and hi-tech.

They can be dar­ing, self-con­fi­dent, cre­ative, flex­i­ble, and have the abil­ity to im­pro­vise quickly, he says.

“I also de­vel­oped the third eye that they have. We can do this here at home. The three of us started a net­work called Kenarava Group. Through this, we can make Kenya food se­cure. Yala yala! (slo­gan to mean let’s get things go­ing).”

He be­lieves Kenya’s farm­ing po­ten­tial is even greater than Is­rael’s, where weather is highly un­favourable and water is scarce.

In Kenya, farm­ing ac­counts for about 60 per cent of em­ploy­ment and al­most 80 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, es­pe­cially those liv­ing in ru­ral ar­eas, derive their liveli­hood from agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties.

But the sec­tor is highly un­der-de­vel­oped, and largely re­lies on er­ratic rains and tra­di­tional prac­tices.

This ex­plains why the food pro­duced is al­ways in­ad­e­quate and, at any mo­ment, about three mil­lion peo­ple are on relief food.

Diang’a, a ge­ol­ogy grad­u­ate from the University of Nairobi, says farm­ing should be given higher pri­or­ity to pro­mote na­tional devel­op­ment.

He be­lieves their ini­tia­tive, KenArava, will grow and one day reach the heights of GreenArava, the Is­raeli com­pany cur­rently man­ag­ing the Galana ir­ri­ga­tion scheme.

GreenArava was also es­tab­lished in the Arava re­gion in 2002 as a de­vel­oper and pro­ducer of mod­ern agri­cul­tural prod­ucts.

To­day, it is one of Is­rael’s largest pri­vate farm­ing com­pa­nies, with of­fices in Kenya, Myan­mar and Ukraine, and a dis­tri­bu­tion net­work in more than 15 coun­tries.

AGAINST ALL ODDS

Im­me­di­ate former Is­raeli Am­bas­sador Ya­hel Vi­lan strongly be­lieves the pri­vate sec­tor can make Kenya food se­cure.

“These peo­ple can change the struc- ture of agri­cul­tural ex­ten­sion in Kenya. They came back home with hand­son ex­pe­ri­ence. For me it’s im­por­tant that this won’t be lost,” he says.

Ya­hel says the Galana project will be a game changer if Kenyans are pa­tient.

“If we have the pa­tience to let them work, it will be a game changer. In five years there won’t be food short­age,” he says.

As part of the Galana deal with the gov­ern­ment, the GreenArava trains at least 100 Kenyans every year on the lat­est agri­cul­tural tech­nolo­gies.

“If we want a long-last­ing project, then train­ing for Kenyans to do the job is cru­cial,” Ya­hel says.

Mo­hammed Abdi, an alum of Kenya Water In­sti­tute, was at­tached to a farm run by GreenArava.

“Arava is a desert,” he says. “Yet they grow all food va­ri­eties. They grow Cap­sicum, pep­pers, fruits and 60 per cent is for ex­port.”

He adds: “You have to take every chal­lenge as an op­por­tu­nity. This is what has al­lowed farm­ers in this re­gion to beat all odds.”

Mo­hammed was the group leader of all Kenyans and says he learned more than food pro­duc­tion.

“Within Is­rael, Chris­tians, Mus­lims and Jews live peace­fully with each other. I have also met stu­dents from 102 coun­tries, com­ing from dif­fer­ent back­grounds. From the desert, I’ve learned that every chal­lenge can be an op­por­tu­nity.”

Chep­kwony also ex­tended his in­ter­est be­yond farm­ing.

He de­vel­oped a pas­sion for agri­cul­tural pho­tog­ra­phy. He says the Kenyans grew with the crops in the farms where they worked.

He took pho­tos of crops from plant­ing to har­vest­ing, and be­lieves agri­cul­tural pho­tog­ra­phy is un­tapped in Kenya.

“Through pho­tog­ra­phy we can also en­cour­age many young peo­ple to go into farm­ing,” he says.

There were chal­lenges, too. “Back at home, I was raised in a trop­i­cal cli­mate char­ac­terised by a lack of sea­sons. In the South­ern Negev, I have been ex­posed to both heat and cold in sig­nif­i­cantly high mea­sure,” Chep­kwony says.

Arava’s desert cli­mate is harsh, and tem­per­a­tures siz­zle around 40 de­grees Cel­sius in sum­mer — hot­ter than any part of Kenya.

It is also sparsely pop­u­lated, with the large dis­tance be­tween com­mu­ni­ties be­ing ap­prox­i­mately an hour’s drive.

“The fact that farm­ers have cre­ated a food bas­ket, right in the mid­dle of a desert, in­di­cates the com­plex na­ture of hu­man in­tel­lec­tual so­phis­ti­ca­tion — this is a real chal­lenge to all na­tions across the world,” he says.

IN KENYA, FARM­ING AC­COUNTS FOR ABOUT 60 PER CENT OF EM­PLOY­MENT AND AL­MOST 80 PER CENT OF THE POP­U­LA­TION, ES­PE­CIALLY THOSE LIV­ING IN RU­RAL AR­EAS, DERIVE THEIR LIVELI­HOOD FROM AGRI­CUL­TURAL AC­TIV­I­TIES

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/COUR­TESY

1. Mo­hamed Abdi, Ron­ald Diang’a and Ken­neth Chep­kwony

2. Former Is­raeli Am­bas­sador Ya­hel Vi­lan at the em­bassy last month.

3. A pep­per farm in Arava, Is­rael.

4. Cows be­ing milked at a farm in Is­rael

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