Banking on women

Banking on women

02/10/2012

How innovative technology by FAO is promoting a savings culture for grains

Osama is dead and the women of Kimu market in Kyuso district are a happy lot. And no, the most wanted fugitive has not been sighted in the heart of Ukambani in eastern Kenya. Osama is the name given to their public enemy number one, the larger grain borer, scientifically known as Prostephanus truncates. This is a destructive strain of weevil, accidentally introduced from Central America into Tanzania in the late 1970s; it has terrorised the residents of Kyuso and become a serious pest of stored maize known to completely wipe out harvests.

These women now have the metal silo technology to thank, an innovation successfully promoted and perfected by FAO in far away Nicaragua, South America. It is a novelty that is radically changing the way farmers in the greater Mwingi are storing their seeds for the next planting season.

Introducing Kimu Bank

This is not your typical bank where you are ushered into a fortified claustrophobia-inducing establishment by a sombre-looking armed guard who will enthusiastically search your person to the point of assault. Neither will you find long queues with uninterested grey-suited executives behind bullet-proof glass windows inches thick.

Enter the bank manager. You would be forgiven to dismiss her as any other woman from the neighbouring Kimu villages. You are right, she is just an ordinary woman from the village who happens to be the chairperson of the local women’s group. After introductions, a simple padlock opens two blue swinging doors that usher us into the dark bank ‘lobby’. There are imposing shiny metal structures, six in number, all standing on wooden frames. These structures are clearly labelled: maize, sorghum, green grams and garam. “Welcome to our bank vault”, she says.

Mr Munyoki, our counterpart from ActionAid, an implementing partner of FAO Kenya explains, “Up to 70 per cent of a crop can be lost due to poor storage and handling practices. Insects, rodents and fungi as well as environmental factors like moisture and temperature are responsible. Aflatoxins are produced by a fungus which thrives in warm and humid conditions, and this food poisoning is all too common in eastern Kenya as often reported on national media.”

Besides storing food grains for consumption, the women of Kyuso have found it equally important to store their seeds in readiness for the next planting season. They communally deposit their seeds into the metal silos for preservation where they can remain viable for up to three years. Just like in financial banking, proper records are kept to ensure that depositors keep track of their savings. Farmers are encouraged to bring their seeds for safe-keeping in order to reduce access to and hence discourage its consumption during food shortages.

When the planting season draws near, the farmer withdraws half of their deposits for planting. This policy ensures that there is spare seeds left in store in case the first crop fails. The farmers are also encouraged to save up more than is required for their consumption in order to sell to other farmers who either did not save at all or require more than they had put aside for planting. This opportunity for a new income stream is a motivation for the entrepreneurial farmers to even save more.

Quality control is paramount before the deposits are made to ensure that no unwanted elements are introduced into the silos. The seeds are first physically checked for impurities and pests. The moisture content is then measured using locally available materials to ensure the grains reach the required standards.

Dr. Paul Omanga, a crop production expert at FAO Kenya explains. “At the household level, we conduct the ‘salt and glass test’. Take a dry glass tumbler and put some salt inside. Take a handful of the grains to be tested and put them inside the same glass and shake the contents. If the salt starts sticking to the sides of the glass tumbler, then the moisture content on the grains is too high to be stored in the metal silo.”

A blank stare prompts him to explain the science involved. “Salt is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from its surroundings. When grains with a high moisture content are put in salt, the salt absorbs this moisture and the moist salt sticks to the glass.”

After passing the pest and moisture tests, the seeds are removed from the burlap bags and wooden containers they are typically stored in and poured directly into the metal silo. The silo works on the idea that pests and fungi, being living things, do require oxygen to survive and thrive. Removing oxygen therefore means no pests can survive. At the household level, oxygen is eliminated using simple science and readily available materials. Because fire uses up oxygen, burning a candle inside the silo until it goes off confirms the elimination of oxygen. For the larger silos, methylated spirit can also be burned inside the silo. The grains are then put into the silos and the entries and exits sealed using bladder, local lingo for rubber elastic from old tyre tubing. Any remaining oxygen is used up by the grains, which are alive, thus completely sealing the silo.

The seeds can now remain viable for the next several planting seasons. It’s not only the women of Kyuso who have become believers in this new innovation. Mr. James Muchoka, District Agricultural Officer, Mwingi Central District revealed that he had also bought the metal silo for his personal use on his farm. As an opinion leader, he hopes to help promote the technology to his neighbours by example. “This (metal silo) technology will spread like a bushfire given time”, he says.

Mr. Muchoka recounts a couple of testimonials of people who have used the technology. A villager in his jurisdiction is said to have stored his already weevil-infested grain in his metal silo. In a month when he went to collect his grain, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that the pests had all been killed and the grains were in excellent condition. From then on, the originally pessimistic farmer and fellow villagers have become the new converts to the metal silo “movement” and have gone on a recruitment campaign to “bring others into the fold”. Scepticism to things foreign is now in the past.

A major thrust for the adoption of this technology is the business opportunities it affords. One of the pioneer artisans trained in the fabrication of the technology is said to have produced the silos in their thousands. With turnover of about one hundred US dollars per silo, a lot of money can potentially be generated by the venture. Not only has this entrepreneur managed raise his economic profile, but many households have also directly and indirectly benefitted through employment as well as the resulting value chain to the farmers.

This project was made possible by the generous support from the European Union.