About fifteen years ago an old friend of ours, Pat Murtagh from County Meath, now departed this life, gave my wife a packet of sunflower seeds, and told her that she should plant them in the front garden as they are the most beautiful flower. Not being a member of the green finger or gardening fraternity I had to ask for a description of the said flower which after being planted in accordance with packet instructions not even one snippet appeared above ground. It probably knew that the after-care facilities would be non-existent and thought better of living a life of abject neglect. Today I could bore anyone who cares to tears on the merits, drawbacks, innards, outards, pros and cons of this tall and watchful plant.
Sunflower plant in the Showgrounds, Nakuru
My association with the sunflower began about four years ago in my place of employment, the Institute of Technology, Tralee when Dave Frizelle asked me to become involved in " The Oil Press Project". The Oil Press Project was designed, developed and manufactured over three years by staff and students from the Institutes Department of Agricultural Engineering and by staff from the Estates Office. Much research was undertaken and parts, new and used were sourced from many parts of this country and beyond. A de-stoner, cleaner, de-cordicator, oil press, sedimentary tanks and mixer were all purchased, modified, refurbished, assembled and tested to make up the means of extracting oil from sunflower seed.
In March 2001 a freight container packed with much valued clothes, bicycles, sewing machines and other commodities including all the oil press machines and accessories left the shores of Ireland bound for the port of Mombassa in Kenya. After many problems, especially with Kenyan Customs, the container arrived in the small village of Saiga, thirty kilometres west of the large town of Nakuru.
Three people from Kerry, Dave Frizelle, Aidan O'Sullivan and myself travelled to Kenya to install and commission the plant. On our first morning in Nairobi I met William Keyah for the first time. William had bad news for us, there was now no building available in which to install the machines as his organisation, ARDESC, had been more or less evicted from the premises in Nakuru Showgrounds where it was to be installed. William's organisation had been funded from Germany through the Catholic Dioceses of Nakuru helping farmers to survive and teaching them ways of being self-sufficient. Problems arose regarding the ownership of the project and a Land-rover which ITT also donated. The result was that William and his team were left without a premises or their funding from Germany.
A very determined William quickly found an answer to the problem. A site was found in Salgaa, and on the day we arrived at this site bare footed men were digging out a 60ft X 30ft foundation.
Sunflower Project at foundation level
Over the next few weeks we were to witness the unique building skills and innovative methods of the Kenyans as the floors were laid and the walls rose. The machines were put in position even though there was no roof, finished walls or electricity to work with. The system was commissioned with the aid of a generator because it would take weeks to get a permanent electrical supply. We had to return home to Ireland before the plant was in production and it was November 2002 before it produced any sunflower oil.
Building and installation of equipment progress
One year later Aidan O'Sullivan and myself made a return visit to Nakuru and Saiga to renew acquaintances and check on the progress of the Oil Press Project. The building is now complete and houses the machines downstairs and sparsely furnished office and training room upstairs. The 'Oil Press Project' is producing sunflower cooking oil and the residue is used for animal feed. The farmer members of ARDESC sell their sunflower seed to the co-op (ARDESC) and buy back cooking oil and will purchase animal feed when that part of the operation is up and running properly. The person who runs this operation is William Keyah, a most formidable, determined and capable man. William lives in Molo, sixty kilometres west of Nakuru on a little farm of about six acres which at present provides the sole support for himself, his wife and six children. All his children are in school, two of them in secondary school. For the past twelve months William and his team of seven supervisors have continued to work without pay since the funding from Germany ceased. They visit co-op members throughout the Rift Valley region giving farm advice and training. William is a highly educated man, he obtained a degree in Kenya and from 1997 to 1999 studied successfully for a Masters Degree in Rural Development in University College, Galway. It was during this time in Ireland that he came up with the idea of setting up a co-op for small fanners in the Rift Valley area of Kenya. He was very impressed with the Credit Union system in this country and a while after his return he brought together a number of trustworthy friends and acquaintances and founded the co-op and savings scheme. This began in August 1999 and by December they had a fund of 400 Kenyan shillings. Three hundred Kenyan shillings would have had the value of about five Irish pounds at the time. Eventually through the work of this team the fund grew and today it stands at approximately 1.4 million Kenyan Shillings, approximately ten thousand Euro. There are about three thousand members in the group and for the first time in the history of the country small farmers have learned what it is like to save regularly and to have a bank account. Small loans are given for the purchase of seeds, food, schoolbooks, shoes, clothes and other essentials. William and his team are constantly on the road giving advice, holding meetings, giving training in agriculture and encouraging people to help themselves and not be exploited by the many unscrupulous traders who take advantage of the non-street-wise peasantry.
I have met many of these people, I have shared their food in their homes, I have been on their farms, I have been in their pubs, I have seem them dance, I have heard them sing, I have heard their joyous and sad tales and we laughed and joked together as we do in Ireland. Generally they are a happy people, they are no different from us in most respects except that geographically they were born in a continent that has suffered the ravages of war, drought, starvation, plantation, exploitation and corruption. They are quite capable of rising up, being self-sufficient and determining their own future if they just get the vital help at this vital time. Kenya has a change of Government for the first time in forty years and at this point there is a new hope evident among the people. The situation in rural Kenya at present is comparable to where we were fifty or sixty years ago in Ireland. They till their gardens with a grubber and spade, a bicycle is a rarity and a luxury, a donkey and cart is for the reasonably well off, they walk for miles to villages for essential supplies. They collect buckets water from rivers, and 'bearts' of sticks for their fires. One of the most abiding memories that I have from my visit last year is that of a struggling woman on her way home from a Sunday market. She carried two rolled sheets of corrugated iron across her lower back. The sheets were supported by a strap around her forehead and a strap over each shoulder which she held with her hands.
A Kenyan friend sent me an e-mail earlier in the year which said, "people in Kenya are happy at present as it is making lots of rain, so they know they will have food for the year".It is not good enough in this age of mechanisation, super technology and over production of food in the developed world that a country and even the vast majority of the African Continent can only look one year ahead to know if they will have enough to eat.
If ever a project needed to succeed in Kenya it is this one because it is a huge effort by William Keyah and his team to give a wonderful rural people hope and above all a structure that will help them to help themselves. William and his team realise that Kenyans need self-determination to sustain their own future and to ensure a secure future for generations to come.
William Keyah is a man of enormous integrity and has the ability, foresight and determination to give the Kenyan people what Nora Herlihy gave the working class people of Ireland when they were being exploited during the 1950's and 60's, the Credit Union. Like the Irish many years ago the people of Kenya need to be taken out of the clutches of the money-lender and the exploiter of the poor. William and his organisation are in dire need of support for a few years that will get them to the stage where they will have built up a sufficient fund that will support its membership and management team. Projects like the 'Oil Press Project' and some of the many other revenue generating ideas that William has will help stave off the threat of starvation if there is a year without rain.