In Kenya, one Adventist entrepreneur is helping victims of HIV/AIDS and other rural villagers to stand on their own two feet. Spectrum asked Common Ground Project and Pathfinder Academy founder Joshua Machinga how lives are being changed through innovative farming techniques.
RD: What is “Common Ground” and how did it begin? What kinds of people do you serve and how is the organization staffed?
JM: Common Ground Program (CGP) is a registered Kenyan non-governmental community-based organization started in 1995 with headquarters in Kitale, Kenya. CGP’s mission is to help mitigate poverty, the single largest threat to human wellbeing and social stability in Kenya. Poverty breeds hunger, disease, illiteracy and environmental degradation. It also sharpens civil conflicts. CGP strives to reduce poverty while conserving the Earth's natural heritage and biodiversity, and to demonstrate in a concrete, observable way that modern human societies can live sustainably and comfortably in harmony with nature.
Since its inception, CGP has helped thousands of Kenyans to significantly improve their lives by teaching GROW BIOINTENSIVE (self-help food raising methods based on building and maintaining soil fertility while using no chemicals) and environmental conservation. The organization targets mostly children and women (especially widows and those living with HIV/AIDS).
CGP founded and operates a primary school (“Pathfinder Academy”) with 390 students enrolled in grades K-8. The majority of these children are orphaned by HIV/AIDS and some are living with AIDS. The school provides basic needs (food, education and shelter) through the integration of sustainable natural resource management and food security into basic education, strengthening links between the school, homes and communities. Each year students and faculty go out to groups (usually groups of AIDS widows) to teach them Biointensive growing methods in order to help them become self-reliant and to attain food security. As a result of its community service, the school has received awards from the Ministry of Education for four consecutive years for being the best school in reaching out to communities. Experiences gained at Pathfinder Academy have been shared with many others through local media and international forums, which are now being replicated in other countries.
Through scholarships, CGP additionally supports students in high schools, colleges and university. These are bright but needy students who are sponsored through Teach to Learn (TTL) and Butterfly Scholarship Funds. Through this project, for every one child educated, ninety families are fed because recipients are supposed to carry out community training in their rural villages.
RD: What is your current role with Common Ground and what was your background before beginning the project? Where did you receive training in agriculture?
JM: I am in charge of coordinating CGP project activities and resource mobilization. Before starting CGP I worked with Kenya Indigenous Forest Conservation, a World Bank/ODA project and Manor House Agricultural Center. After that I trained for a certificate in Biointensive farming at Manor House Agricultural Centre (MHAC), and I have just now completed my final exams for a diploma at MHAC. I am also a trained social worker with an interest in young people.
MHAC offers training in GROW BIOINTENSIVE, a low input farming technology offered as an alternative to resource-poor, small-scale farmers who struggle to afford the expense of conventional farming methods.
Graduates are equipped with both theory and practical skills that can easily be adapted to create self-employment and to design training programs so that farmers can produce higher yields from their small parcels of land while eliminating conventional costs.
RD: How does GROW BIOINTENSIVE work?
JM: GROW BIOINTENSIVE is simple to learn and use, but it is based on sophisticated principles dating back 4000 years in China, 2000 years in Greece, and 300 years in Europe. It was synthesized and brought to the United States by the English master horticulturist Alan Chadwick, and it was then further developed and documented by Ecology Action. Important aspects of the method include:
• Double-dug, raised beds
• Intensive planting
• Carbon farming
• Calorie farming
• The use of open–pollinated seeds
• The whole gardening method
Globally, the health of farming is being threatened by severe challenges:
• Because of population growth, pollution of water sources, and greater use of water for industry, by 2050 each person on the earth will have only 25% of the water that was available in 1950. Current agricultural practices use 80% of the Earth’s available water.
• There maybe as little as forty years of farmable soil remaining globally. For every pound of food eaten, six to twenty-four pounds of soil are lost due to water and wind erosion as a result of conventional agricultural practices.
• 95% of the seed varieties ever grown in agriculture are now virtually extinct. Much of this is due to the growing of relatively few crops, and the frequent use of hybrid seeds for the crops that are grown. Seeds that are no longer used soon lose their viability and are rarely available.
• Global warming may cut agricultural production in half within as little as twenty years. In February, 2004, The Observer in the United Kingdom reported that climate change is a greater threat to the world than terrorism.
• With supplies of petroleum and natural gas running out, conventional agriculture, which is heavily dependent on these resources, will become more expensive, raising food prices accordingly. As natural gas to make inexpensive nitrogen fertilizer is depleted, it may take significantly more land to grow the same amount of food currently being produced.
• The number of farmers globally keeps decreasing. In Kenya, most farmers are an average of sixty years old. Many people would like to farm but are unable to afford the land and equipment. Other farmers have been forced off their land due to heavy competition from globalization and subsidized food. As farmers go out of business, their skills—often passed down through millennia—are also lost to the world. Once-thriving agricultural communities that served rural populations deteriorate and die as farmers leave.
GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming can provide a solution to many of these challenges. The method:
• Requires 67% to 88% less water than conventional agriculture.
• Properly used, is capable of building up soil while growing food.
• Grows a wide variety of crops, using only open-pollinated seeds.
• Requires no petroleum or natural gas products. It is based on human energy and will still be productive when oil runs out.
• Can produce high yields on small pieces of land with limited resource use, making it accessible to almost everyone who would like to grow food.
Through these efforts we have seen the following happen in most families:
• Most families have three meals a day.
• An income of Kshs. 3500 – Kshs. 20, 000 ($45- $250) per month.
• An increase of 60% to 70% in the number of students going to national schools every year.
• There is improved health among target families.
• Increased enrolment in schools and reduced drop-out rates among girls.
• Increased hope for a better life now and in the future.
The training in the villages is done by CGP staff, volunteers, interns, Pathfinder Academy students in grades 7 & 8, and high school students on scholarships. Presently CGP is establishing a marketing hub for GROW BIOINTNSIVE (Organic) products.
RD: CPG also offers micro-finance loans to village women. What kinds of businesses are most commonly started by loan recipients? What has your success rate been?
JM: When rural girls and young women graduate from high school, they enter an adult world of massive unemployment. Their limited options include marrying young or searching for work far from home. In most families, because men manage the family’s financial affairs, women have no experience with money.
CGP offers rural women ways to overcome these problems. Our new project “Organizing for Africa Fund” offers training, peer support and micro-loans to help women learn economic skills and to launch small businesses. This program is uniquely run by young women, creating a bond of female solidarity that is integral to its success. The majority of the loans are for around $50 per person/family, which is invested in a business such as tailoring, shop kiosks, cereal production, brick making, dairy and poultry keeping, re-lending projects and more. The repayment rate is almost 98%. There are a few cases here and there because of illness and death where individuals are unable to repay.
RD: As an Adventist, why have you chosen to seek funding from secular non-profit organizations as opposed to faith-based or denominational charities? Who are some of your donors?
JM: Some of the faith-based charities have string attached to their grants. Many of them require that you belong to their denomination in order to receive their funds, and so I seek grants from secular non-profit organizations. Some of my donors include: Amistad International, Cottonwood Foundation, Kilili Self Help Project, REAP fund, Pangea, LTC, WHY and Rotary.
RD: Have members of your local church or conference shown an interest in your humanitarian work? What is your involvement like at your local church and how does your faith impact your activities with CGP?
JM: Members of the local church and the conference participate in our projects as volunteers and donators. We help the church reach out and train local leaders on matters of stewardship and we have provided training to Dorcus and Women’s Ministries in the local church and regions in our conference. Every year at least fifty people join the church through baptism, though CGP is not involved in any forms of traditional evangelism. I believe in the total stewardship of God-given talents and this is what motivates me in my work with CGP. My calling is to help humanity.
RD: How would one go about donating money to Common Ground?
JM: Checks can be written to Amistad International and should have “Common Ground Project” written in the subject line. Checks can be mailed to:
PO Box 455
Palo Alto, CA 94302