Kenya: Agriculture & Culture

Kenya: Agriculture & Culture

Earlier this year I arrived in Africa, eager and excited to learn about people, agriculture and food as a fellow member of the Illinois Agriculture Leadership Foundation, and left with far more than an education. For the past two years a cohort of ag leaders spent three days a month together, developing in strategic areas of leadership. Ultimately, we prepared for a two-week international seminar in the countries of Kenya and Israel, on the brink of a global pandemic. 

In preparation for the seminar, we studied at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and University of Illinois. We met with and challenged dozens of business leaders throughout the state of Illinois on such topics as environment, sustainability, investment strategy, human capital, ethics, food waste, pesticides and chemicals, animal welfare and many others. We also spent a week in Washington, D.C. meeting with the USDA, EPA, State Department, elected officials, lobbyists, and visited multiple embassies, all in an effort to prepare us for an epic two-week international seminar. The highlight in D.C. was meeting with the State Department. It was fascinating. The group we met with was extremely impressive, and they kept us on the edge of our seats as we leaned into their every word in regard to terrorism, trade, and international intelligence.

IALF Class of 2020

Hakuna Matata – Means no worries in Swahili… Everyone who has seen the Lion King knows that. What I learned after a week in Kenya though is that this country has so much more to offer than Simba. While Kenya definitely has its challenges, she also has a great deal of beauty, opportunity and fortitude. I met some brilliant people, experienced some amazing Discovery Channel stuff, and consumed some tasty new foods and beers. Big fan of the Tusker Lager, a native Kenyan beer.  In addition to the beer and the safari though, we were exposed to very real healthcare and poverty issues in Kenya.

A bit of a surprise came from the significant Chinese influence in the Rift Valley and city of Nairobi. Billions of dollars are being invested in infrastructure by the Chinese to support the transportation of goods and in particular, food, from the Rift Valley to feed a growing global population of people. All throughout countryside highways, there are semi-trucks recklessly hauling shipping containers to the Indian Ocean port at Mombasa, where goods are exported. On more than one occasion as I sat in the passenger seat of the safari jeep we traveled in, it seemed as though we were going to crash, only to dart back in to our original lane at the last minute. Our drivers, unphased by all of this, I think found it amusing to watch us squirm at Kenya’s lack of driving laws. By the end of the week though, we were either too tired or use to it, as it seemed to bother me less.

I very much enjoyed meeting a dairy farmer named Simon who has 34 Holstein cows on his family farm. He engineered and built an anaerobic digester to help him manage the manure and nutrients from the cows, as well as convert methane into natural gas that he uses to power his home’s utility needs. The digestion process also creates a bio-solid he later uses as fertilizer for his crops. I’ve been to hundreds of farms in the U.S., and never have I seen a digester project quite like this one. Simon is a true visionary, with a sustainable, low-carbon-emitting-farm, in rural Kenya.

Simon explaining his anaerobic digester.

In addition to dairy, flower, and tea farm visits, another highlight was meeting with the founder of Hello Tractor. Jehiel Oliver is an Ohio native, who was educated in the United States and moved to Kenya with the idea that tractors could be rented by farmers, by the hour. The vast majority of farmers in Kenya could never afford to own or lease a tractor, so this technology is making it possible for farmers to modernize their farms, by using an app, in a very similar way that we use Uber or Lyft. The same farmers that do not have electricity or running water in their homes, are using their cell phone to order a tractor to their farm!

While I didn’t cross the bucket list item of seeing a lion in the wild, we did go on an African Safari and witnessed mother nature in her natural state. Lots of zebra, cape buffalo, and antelope. Giraffe, black rhino and baboons. Monkeys, wart hogs, flamingos, and many other birds of different colors and sizes as well. First time on this continent, did not disappoint.

While reflecting back to this trip, I came across a few articles as I was checking in on the country from a far. While we are arguing politics and proper school reopening opinions here in the states, Kenyan schools are literally shut down and being used as chicken coops due to COVID-19. Many children in rural Kenya have similar living conditions as farm animals do here in the states. Some Kenyan children are educated in schools that resemble a U.S. farm, much more than they resemble even the worst schools in our country.  Visiting Kenya was a humbling experience that provided a global view of the world from a professional development standpoint. Personally, the trip to Kenya was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The further we get from the USA, the more we can appreciate it and realize how great of a country we have. Sitting in a safari jeep without cell phone service after staring out the window for hours at rural poverty will make you appreciate all that we have here in the US, especially our first world problems. They don’t seem so bad if we put them in perspective.

From Kenya, our group departed and traveled to Israel where we experienced (as you might imagine) a vast difference in culture, food and agriculture… I’ll share those reflections next time on the blog.

If your organization or school would like to schedule an in-person or zoom presentation to learn about food, agriculture and culture in Kenya, please contact me at and I will be happy to tailor a presentation to your audience.

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