From aid to self-reliance: How Ustawi is changing lives

Ustawi members with founder Doreen Irungu (left) during a grapes field training by Bernad Kuria Maina in Ngawa, Laikipia North, in March 2022.

Photo credit: Peter Musa | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Doreen Irungu’s mission was to  help farmers change tack, end reliance on relief aid.
  • Members spread within Meru and Laikipia areas, practise dairy, crop, poultry, bee-keeping and fishery.

After more than a decade working as a community development officer in Laikipia, Meru and Nyeri counties, Doreen Njoki Irungu realised that giving humanitarian aid was not solving her local communities’ problems.

Instead, it made them over-reliant on external assistance, which only suppressed their personal potential.

In 2017, Ms Irungu called it quits in the humanitarian aid distribution field and sought a permanent solution for her community.

“No sooner had the people experienced a bumper harvest than a drought followed and we would be back to square one. Children would still drop out of school due to hunger.

“We needed to end this. I mobilised like-minded people, we formed a team that investigated  why after heavy rains, followed by a bounty harvest, the song remained the same less than a year later. The loud answer was lack of change in peoples’ mindsets,” says Ms Irungu, the founder and executive chairperson of Ustawi.

They lived in a fairly dry area where most people depended on rain for subsistence farming.

Worse still, they had no place to store their farm produce after harvesting them, and no direct link to the market to fetch better prices. They ended up selling to brokers at a throwaway price.

Less income meant they saved nothing for a better tomorrow.

Farmers needed to grow crops in the dry season to fetch better prices during low supply. They also needed the know-how of water harvesting to irrigate in dry season.


Above all, they needed professionals to train them in best practice in crop and animal husbandry, dealing with the market and post-harvest losses, negotiating prices with buyers, and controlling diseases and pests that destroy animals and crops.

With facilitation through grassroots networks, people began looking at farming beyond rain-fed agriculture and focused on agribusiness with crops like snow peas, chilly, potatoes, tomatoes, tree tomato fruit, grapes, French beans and herb crops taking prominence.

Women labourers picking French beans at Kairigire village, Laikipia North, March 2022.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

This was the beginning of Ustawi (a Kiswahili word for prosperity), a community-based organisation with 3,500 members, consisting of clusters of between 10 and 20 members each in Meru and Laikipia counties. The clustering is based on location, with members doing different farming activities.

The group’s objective was to offer a one-stop-shop to the farmers’ problems for solutions. Members are in dairy, crop, poultry, bee-keeping and fishery.

Reaching out to different women was not easy as they were widely spread within Meru and Laikipia areas.

“We formed clusters based on location for easy coordination of farming inputs distribution, and access to farming and livestock management professionals, new technologies and market advisory services,” says Ms Irungu.

With that, the community was ready to roll up its sleeves and adopt commercial agriculture and animal husbandry.

Lucy Wanjiru Gitegi, 44, a single mother of two and a member of the group from Ngenia in Laikipia North, is a pig farmer and sells fruit seedlings. She says joining Ustawi raised her morale, empowering her to look at farming as a lucrative opportunity for prosperity. She diversified from potatoes to rearing pigs for more income.

“I am in a group that stands by me during tough times, encouraging me to work harder on my small farm for a better life.

“Last year, I started off with five piglets and I aim to increase my stock to 20 before the year-end. In seven months, a pig weighing 70 kilogrammes can fetch me Sh28,000,” she counts.

Solution at last

Pauline Kiige from Buuri in Meru County, is a dairy farmer supplying milk in Nanyuki town. In 2016, she bought a cow at Sh160,000 from a farmer in Githunguri, Kiambu County, aiming to increase her milk production. However, the cow did not conceive and this frustrated her expectations. She was also running a school that needed alternative fuel for cooking.

“I had expected the cow would multiply my herd; however, I was frustrated after it failed to conceive. I was on the verge of giving up when a friend informed me that Ustawi, which included dairy experts, had farmers’ training nearby.

"I attended to know what I needed to do about a cow not conceiving. I am now able to breed my own stock, which is cost-effective and increase my stock,” Ms Kiige says.

Irene Kimathi, also from Buuri, Meru County, is an agriculturalist and Ustawi member. Currently, poultry farmers are counting heavy losses due to adulterated feed. She is training them in how to prepare their own feed and they are seeing the value.

In 2013 after graduating with a diploma in general agriculture, she decided to keep poultry “both as a passion and because there is money in it. My parents would sell chickens to pay my school fees.”

At Ngawa in Laikipia North, Edward Mwirigi, 45, and his wife Rhoda, 40, are jointly growing French beans and snow peas, each on a quarter of an acre. They fetch an average of Sh300,000 per year from both.

“We are running the project jointly. If my wife is away, I ensure everything is running smoothly.”

Determined to change her life after years of toil with no much gain, Anne Wangui Wanjohi, 56, who lives a few kilometres from Nanyuki town, attended a series of poultry-keeping training, to start a poultry project.

“The training opened my eyes and I look forward to supplying the market with 100 chickens every week by 2023,” she says.
Previously, she planted potatoes and maize, depending on the rains.

Reaping big

“From the practice, I have never reaped much benefit and was always in perennial financial need, as I only sold seasonally and yields were poor,” she recalls.

Ustawi is still work in progress. “We plan to create a digital farmer-call-centre to provide farmers with information on projected profitability, prevailing market conditions, weather patterns, product quality and diseases’ control,” says Ms Irungu.

Ustawi plans to incorporate both genders for stability in running family projects.

John Murigu, a cluster leader from Ngawa, Laikipia North, says families where couples work together get better output, sentiments backed by Eunice Muthuri, a cluster leader from Ndurukuma-Nkando, Laikipia East, specialising in tomato farming, agrees with.

Pst Solomon Kiige from Nanyuki who works with his wife, says man and woman are equal and have complementary attributes for prosperity of both. 

With a call centre as one of its pending projects, and more financial muscle, Ustawi will reach out to more people, such as 42-year-old Irene Njoki, a mother of three who picks French beans and snow peas in Kairigire village, Laikipia North, earning Sh15 per kilogramme picked.

Asked why she has yet to join Ustawi, she remarks: “I don’t have much land; neither do I have the capital to start off. But I am seeing this as the way to better my life,” she says shyly, before going on harvesting on her neighbour’s farm.


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