Later in the week was the launch of a new NGO, Fair Trade Organization of Kenya (FTOK). Forty farmers representing ten thousand farm families came together for the celebration and a full-day workshop on fair trade and organics, presented by John and I, along with FTOK founder Sophie Mukua and President, Samwel Okwenda. There were also representatives of Thika Mills (mills are traditionally the last bad guy in the farmer rip-off equation), which is now certified to process fair trade coffees (hmm, we’ll see), and Robert Thuo of the African Wildlife Foundation, which is saving elephants and helping farmers with a grant from USAID and Starbucks (it is great work, but I had to ask, wouldn’t it be betmter if Starbucks simply paid the farmers more for their coffee? Then they could put up their own fences and feed their families directly-what a concept!).
The farmer coops in attendance introduced themselves, and talked about the low price of coffee they receive and the terrible effects of the drought. They talked about how difficult it was to find direct buyers; even though they were allowed to do so by law, they didn’t know how. John gave a wonderfully detailed description of the organic farming system. Most of these farmers were raised on government information that was hopelessly out of date and more appropriate for large plantations, not small holdings of two acres or so. We talked about interplanting and what crops farmers used in different countries to fix nitrogen into the soil, create soil stability and have more food for their families and the local markets. We described natural pesticides and took a break for me to plant a muthega tree at the coop of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Matthai. The tree is used as a natural pesticide and it made a big impression on the farmers. I spent about two hours describing why they don’t get decent money for their crop, how prices are determined in New York, not in the field, and how to protect themselves from thieves coming into the “second window”. We had to change shillings into dollars, pounds into kilograms, and coffee cherries into green beans (about seven to one in Kenya), which made for a head pounding, exciting translation of information for farmers who had never had access to this before. After several intense hours of questioning, we called it quits, applauding each other heartily. Elias Matenge, head of the Thiriku Cooperative came up to me and patted my shoulder forcefully. “This has been revolutionary!” he beamed. “This was the best workshop I have ever attended!” shouted Nelson Mwaniki from Rianjagi. We all walked outside the meeting hall in a good mood. Then the most unbelievable thing happened.
It started to rain.