Kenyan food scientist in Missouri looks homeward
Zellipah Githui’s route to the research offices of Monsanto Co., where she was hired in early 2006, was not the typical one.
Growing up in a remote rural village in Kenya, Githui’s family members were (and are) subsistence farmers. But her parents urged their 17 children to pursue an education, and that eventually led Githui to Missouri, where she earned her MBA. Githui soon landed a job at the world’s largest biotechnology company, where she now coordinates field sampling at sites across the country.
After 14 years in the U.S., Githui recently decided to look homeward, where she has started a nonprofit group to help rural women farmers in Kenya — the people, she says, who are at the heart of her country’s food production. Last year, the organization helped 16 women farmers learn better growing practices via a Kenyan agronomist, using better fertilizers and hybrid seeds. The results were promising. Now in it’s second full year, the organization is growing.
How did you come up with the idea for your project?
I struggled with how I can help my community in a way that they can be independent and can do it for themselves. I thought about a school for orphans, or a primary school. But I woke up one morning in September 2010, and I just had the idea to do something with farming…. In Kenya, mainly the women do the farming, by virtue of the fact that there’s not much employment, and historically, not much education. In Kenya land is inherited, but it’s to the men, and the plots are getting small. So a farm we used to grow food on, we can’t anymore. The land is tired, so to speak. But we come from a productive area; we know it can be productive.
How did you start?
I went to an educated woman – a friend of the family. I knew she was a good fit, a go-getter. I said: let’s get a group together…. I said: You guys do this every day, you have the experience. You provide me a piece of land and labor, I’ll take care of the rest – the seed, the fertilizer, the manure.
How did the first year go?
They planted maize, planted bananas. Some did potatoes, some did tomatoes. The corn was very good, until the reproductive stage, when the rains failed. So there was not much harvest. It went to the cows, so they had a good season. But more importantly was the change – the ‘Ah’ that this can happen on their own farm. The farmers who weren’t part of the group, they saw the obvious changes. They learned proper planting, proper inputs. They were guided by the agronomist I hired. They learned to grow one crop at a time – they normally practice inter-cropping… They’re seeing big, big differences.
How do you fund the project?
The agronomists give them the guidance – how much seed, fertilizers, spraying they need. They give me a dollar figure, in Kenyan shillings, and I send it to them…. When I started, I had no model. I just said: I can do this, I’m going to do this. I sell jewelry at craft fairs; I’ve had garage sales.
What’s the next step?
The goal was to start small, but I want it to get bigger, too…. Right now we have a good problem: People want this. So how can I keep doing this? The next step is to find the resources. I would like this to keep growing, and changing the lives of people in my area. Personally, it’s been a very fulfilling journey, knowing where I’ve come from and where I am. It’s been very fulfilling to give back.
Title: Metabolite Analysis Platform Logistical Coordinator, Monsanto Co., Founder Project Gold Finger/The Rural Women Development Initiative of Kenya.
Education: Bachelor’s degrees from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and Pittsburg (CQ) State University. MBA from Southwest Missouri State University.
Family: Nine-year old son, 16 brothers and sisters