How to garden in a drought 

How to garden in a drought 

Dispatch from Kenya: 

“The dry season is supposed to be December through March, but this year the rains aren’t coming, even up until now.” This we heard from Joseph Gichioni and so many others in central Kenya. Rahab Mugambi, a member of CIFORD Kenya in Meru County, confirmed that water is their biggest problem.

The rains aren’t coming. Climate change is right there in front of them. In a place where the great majority of people rely on farming for food and livelihood, the lack of water is a serious issue.

So CIFORD Kenya, (whose name stands for Community Initiatives for Rural Development), is working with farmers to make the water that is available last as long as possible. The community-based organization, which we visited over the weekend, has a training garden with various configurations of gardens to reduce water use.


Josephat stands in a “horseshoe” garden. This type of garden channels the water to the center of a group of plants, retaining the water. It also provides space for the farmer to walk into the cluster of plants to easily weed and care for them.

Sunken beds help pool rain water to get the most moisture to the plants.

Margeret Ikiara, director of CIFORD, shows us the “mandala” garden, which has rocks in the center to disperse the water.

Using these methods, farmers are able to successfully maintain “kitchen gardens” – small plots next to the kitchen, mostly for home consumption. They grow staple vegetables like kale (called skuma wiki in Swahili) and tomatoes.

They use water from the trickling streams, from sporadic rains, and from the county-supplied water faucet. However, the faucet only has water one or two days a week, and they never know when that will be dry.


Caption: Rose shows me her maize and beans. She uses the waste water from her kitchen and washing for her garden plot. (Also shown, photographer Mike Hegeman’s thumb!)

Almost every member we talked to over the course of the day stressed how much these gardens had reduced their household expenditures and improved their diet and food security. “We have food all year now, and we don’t even have to buy it at the market anymore. We grow it right here,” said Margaret Karayu (pictured below) proudly as she showed us her verdant garden.

Spirit in Action support for dynamic community organizations like CIFORD help them to find and teach local solutions to the global problem of water scarcity and climate change.

We leave Kenya tomorrow and I return home. This has been such a positive trip and I have met so many wonderful people who are serving their communities and working with unbelievable dedication to change their lives. I have seen women carrying heavy jugs of water long distances, and met passionate teachers and leaders. I can’t wait to share more of what I saw with you…after I get a good night’s sleep in my own bed. Thank you to all who supported this trip and who support the work of SIA. You are so appreciated by all who we met. 

A grant that gives hope

A grant that gives hope

Last week, I had the great pleasure of sending out the congratulations letters to the groups that received SIA grants at our last board meeting. I work with each of the grant applicants to more fully understand their projects and to refine their proposals. After weeks and months in communication the happy moment arrives when I get to let them know that SIA approved their application!

“Overwhelmed by joy”

Below is the reply I received from Vincent Atitwa, leader of the Matungu Community Development Charity cooperative in Kenya. They received a grant to start a table banking program to provide their members, mostly small farmers, with low-interest loans.

“First, I must say that I am overwhelmed by joy and happiness after learning that SIA funded our project. I say BIG THANK YOU to you and the entire team of SIA, together with their donors who made all the process possible. May God bless you abundantly so that you continue blessing others too.

“To me, this is not just a grant, it’s a grant that comes with a lot of hope and inspiration to our community.

“Finally God has answered our prayers. I believe that the SIA grant holds a key to unlock a lot of business opportunities for marginalized small scale farmers in our community. The businesses will create both jobs and wealth. I am happy to be associated with SIA and its activities, and I look forward to continuing working with you even in future after this grant.”

A Smart Risk

This grant partnership is a great example of Smart Risk #1 from the forthcoming book, that I co-edited with Jennifer Lentfer, about small grants.

Smart Risk #1: Investing in local expertise. 

Vincent and the rest of the team at Matungu Community Development Charity know the context of lending in rural Kenya. They know about the farming cycles and the challenges associated with the climate and markets. They know the community members and can talk to them when they have trouble repaying the loan. For all these reasons, we believe that it is worth investing in local groups.

Follow along this week on our Facebook page for all five Smart Risks! 

Vetiver: Non-Invasive Erosion Control in Kenya!

Vetiver: Non-Invasive Erosion Control in Kenya!

Spirit in Action partner Samuel Teimuge has been conducting some fascinating research on how Vetiver grass can help reduce soil erosion along the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. Steep walls and unstable soil in the Kerio Valley mean there is a high risk of landslides. Deforestation has made the problem even worse. I asked Samuel for an update on what he is learning: 

Vetiver grass originates from India. It has been in Kenya for over 50 years and I learnt about this grass six years ago. I (Samuel) brought it to the Ukweli Training Center [in sustainable agriculture] and then I invited people I knew would be interested. I and 30 farmers of the grass have formed a Community-Based Organization (CBO) called Konyasoy Vetiver Network. Konyasoy means ‘the healer of soil erosion.’

Vetiver terraced along a roadside cliff.

Vetiver terraced along a roadside cliff.

Non-Invasive Erosion Control

We did a test and found that Vetiver is indeed very effective at controlling erosion. We filled wire cages soil and planted Vetiver on top. The passage of soil and debris built up a soil terrace of two feet. Some of the Vetiver has grown to the height of 6ft. We have seen that it forms narrow dense hedges when planted along the contours of sloping land. This helps the water soak into the soil rather than washing off the slope.

Vetiver grass is naturally sterile and it is propagated by planting slips (shoots), rather than sending seeds. So there is no danger of the grass spreading from where it is planted. It is non-invasive, does not appear to have any significant pests or diseases.

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Harvesting the grasses

The many uses of Vetiver

There are different ways to weave the Vetiver fiber. It can be used to make fans, dolls, napkin holders, baskets, and hats. This can be a huge source of income from those who can weave and also the farmers who can sell the fiber.

Vetiver leaves are very good for thatching shelter and so farmers would benefit when vetiver matures. It takes only about 18-24 months to mature. This can also be good income earner.

When the grass is less than three months it is a good fodder for animals. This is what I (Samuel Teimuge) use to feed my cow. I am still finding out how I can make pellets for animals.

This grass controls pests when other crops are planted in between the rows. It worked very well when I planted green grams (mung beans) in between the vetiver rows. The birds didn’t notice the beans until we harvested! 

It is my dream for the poor people of Kerio Valley to stop their soil erosion and earn income from this great Vetiver grass. It is my desire also to do more research to prove that this grass is of great value. I hope to have up to three staff for three years to multiply this grass.

I won’t give in: How savings cooperatives help

I won’t give in: How savings cooperatives help

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in ’til I reach the end and then I’ll start again. No I won’t leave, I want to try everything, I want to try even though I could fail.” “Try Everything” by Shakira

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in,” proclaims Shakira in my current favorite you-can-do-it song, “Try Everything.” When we fall down, it usually helps when someone is there to pull us up again. In Malawi, COMSIP cooperatives are strong community organizations whose members pull each other up to the next level and to a better, more stable future.

COMSIP stands for Community Savings and Investment Promotion. It is a national project in Malawi that is more than a bank. From what I witnessed at a gathering of the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative, they were like a support group as well as a catalyst for economic growth – giving each other advice and encouragement in their endeavors.

“Our members of the Cooperative are entrepreneurs,” said Canaan Gondwe, leader of the Manyamula COMSIP, and a member of the national COMSIP Union Board. “The mobilized Savings form the capital base from which members borrow and engage in various forms of businesses, such as poultry, retail shops, irrigation farming, baking, pre-school and carpentry among others.”

After 3-4 months of saving money from her business, Beauty was able to use the savings as collateral for a larger, low-interest loan from the cooperative. Cooperative members can apply for loans in proportion to their savings shares. Beauty used the loan to buy high-quality feed and medication for her chickens. She knows that the medications are crucial for protecting her investment in the chickens. 

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Beauty with her daughter.

For Grace Banda, a widow, the COMSIP cooperative was just the kind of encouragement she needed to try again. Before joining COMSIP she had taken a loan from one of the traditional micro-finance lenders in Mzimba, the nearest city and 44km away. When an unexpected event caused her to business to flounder, she was unable to pay back the high-interest debt and had to forfeit her collateral.

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Grace in her shop in the Manyamula market.

COMSIP loans are not only low-interest, they also have repayment schedules that are adaptable to the business cycle – with longer terms for farming and cattle rearing. The local COMSIP leaders can work with the members to give them the highest chance of success. Grace’s Kikumala Shop is still going strong, and is a good source of fresh produce in Manyamula.

These are profound ways that COMSIP helps people start again. And the result is that lives are changed. Ninety-five percent of the 150+ cooperative members have improved their housing since joining. Many more can pay medical bills when illnesses arise. Grace Banda can now pay for school for her three children. “Life is continuing to become simple,” she told me with joy and relief in her voice.

This sentiment is echoed in a wonderful article from the World Bank about the successes of COMSIP groups. Gilaselia Denesi, who became responsible for her four grandchildren when her daughter and son-in-law died, shares how joining a COMSIP cooperative in central Malawi has led to positive change in her life. ““Look at me now!” she says. “God be praised, today my grandchildren, are in school, they are not hungry and even I have some time to have tea in my home. Can you imagine that? I am wearing a new dress today and I have some time for tea!””

For more about COMSIP:

After Finly joined the COMSIP cooperative and began saving, he used a small loan to buy improved Red Creole onion seeds for his farm.

After Finly joined the COMSIP cooperative and began saving, he used a small loan to buy improved Red Creole onion seeds for his farm.

A message of encouragement

A message of encouragement

In December, 200* girls from the Samburu tribe in Kenya celebrated an Alternative Rite of Passage, led by Pastoralist Child Foundation and witnessed by their parents and community members. The day-long celebration was an empowering ceremony of song, dance, and speeches, taking the place of the traditional genital cutting. Our partner Margaret Ikiara of CIFORD Kenya, who hold similar Alternative Rite of Passage celebrations in Meru (5 hours away), went to the event to represent Spirit in Action and share my message of encouragement with the girls. 

A message of encouragement from Tanya Cothran of Spirit in Action:

It is our great honor to celebrate with you today this important moment of your passage from childhood into womanhood. Today you go ahead empowered and knowledgeable about the power that you have as women, and the important role that you play in this community.

We pray for you: courage, strength, kindness, and love. Courage to stand up for your rights, and to stand up for honesty and respect in the home and in society. Strength to face the challenges that will come, so that even when you have a challenging day or week or month, you know that people around the world are praying for you and wishing you well. Kindness and a generous heart to promote peace and understanding between old and new ways of doing things. And Love to fill your days with a happy home and loving connection.

Girls from Meru and Samburu together; sharing their experience of the alternative rite of passage.

Girls from Meru and Samburu together; sharing their experience of the alternative rite of passage.

We wish to share this poem by Marianne Williamson with you – to remind you of the power and greatness that is within each of you:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.”

Though we are far away, we are with you and your families today in the spirit of friendship and solidarity, to celebrate you and to celebrate your life and future. Congratulations!

*Correction 2/17/16: 60 girls attended the December workshop and 200 girls who attended all of PCF’s workshops in 2015 (April, August, December) came together for the Alternative Rite of Passage celebration.

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