Growing Up Resilient

Zakayo Mikwanga is recognized as one of DIG’s most successful home gardeners. He proudly harvests kale, carrots, and other vegetables every day of the year without interruption. “I am a busy person,” he laughs. “Unlike before, my family is learning new techniques as we enjoy the benefits of having a garden with many different vegetables.”

  Growing up, Zakayo had a father who, though poor, valued a good education – a rare privilege in 1960s Kenya. Zakayo would take his small bag of pens and notebooks to school every morning, returning with stories and questions from the day’s lessons.  As a young boy, he dreamed of going to university and having a professional career.   

In his second year of high school, Zakayo’s father died unexpectedly and many of those dreams vanished. Having to now support his mother and his younger siblings, he moved to Mombasa, took whatever work he could, and regularly sent money home.  In Mombasa he met his wife, Julia, and had seven children. When his mother took ill, Zakayo moved his family back to Western Kenya to care for her, but there was no work, and therefore no money to feed his family.   In 2014, Zakayo learned about Development in Gardening and enrolled in DIG’s Mobile Farmer Field School Training.  He quickly began implementing new techniques such as organic pesticides and fertilizers, double-dug and raised beds, composting and soil enrichment, in addition to planting a diverse selection of horticulture crops for improved nutrition.    Today, his farm is more than a kitchen garden feeding his family. “Every week my wife takes the pilipili hoho (green pepper) to the market, and comes back with money,“ he boasts. “On average, she sells Ksh 5,000 ($50) from our garden every month. This is money we did not receive when this piece of land grew only sugarcane.” And he has grand plans for expansion. “Now that I have a portion of my farm growing vegetables so well, I plan to increase its size and use more of the techniques I have learned.”  

When reflecting on how he farmed before DIG’s partnership, Zakayo said, “changing climates really challenged me. I never knew it was important to care for my soil.  I also realized that I did not have the technical know-how to organically farm vegetables for better yields.  Like most people here, I would plant anyhow and never cared about spacing or soil fertility. I never thought about the soil I was leaving for my children.”  Today, Zakayo plants early and saves his vegetable seeds.  He feels it is particularly important now that Kenya is experiencing so many challenges with climate change. “I have the techniques from DIG, and I use them. I am seeing very good results.”   Promoting dietary diversity and introducing a variety of different crops is a big part of DIG’s program. “I never grew crops like green pepper, chard, beetroot, carrots, or pigeon peas before DIG came here, and now my family refuses to make a meal without vegetables,” he says, smiling. “Pigeon pea is one of my favorites because it’s usually ready for harvest during the January/February dry spell, so my family can still enjoy protein-rich food when we used to go without.”  

It’s incredible to think what a simple vegetable garden can do for a vulnerable family in rural Kenya. Today, Zakayo is recognized as a model DIG farmer. Through a small fund, DIG invites him to agriculture workshops and technical trainings throughout the region. He says he is constantly inspired to achieve more through his farm.   “This is my job now,” says Zakayo. “My life has really changed; my family and I now consume a balanced diet. We don’t spend money to buy vegetables. My children are exposed to these techniques, and I’m glad knowing they will copy this for their own livelihoods.  I believe that through this work, I will get enough income to sustain my children and one day I will send them to university.”