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Grinding Out a Living

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In a dusty room inside a disused Boito warehouse sits a perfectly functioning posho mill, draped in cobwebs and surrounded by corn husks, it hasn't seen service since 2010. The reason: the women's group that owns it can no longer afford to pay Kenya Power for the electricity required to run it.

In 1987 the only grinding machine around this area was the one in Rongai village - an arduous walk from Boito with a kiondo full of maize. The local alternative - the intensely laborious mill stones - wasn't particularly attractive to the 20 women who decided to set up the Koitabai Women's Group.

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"The main purpose of the group," according to current chair Sarah Koech, "was to solve the problem with making flour."

The members clubbed together KSH30,000 and bought their own mill, a fairly rudimentary, petrol powered affair. They rented three acres of land on which to plant crops and when they started milling and selling flour each member took a share of the profit while re-investing a percentage back into the group.

This kept them going until 1990 when the rural electrification scheme reached Boito and brought the potential for a mechanical upgrade. By now the women were supplementing their income by charging other villagers to use of the mill; this extra revenue was vital when they shelled out KSH150,000 for an electric machine.

Equipped with the new technology, the group was going steady and membership numbers remained fairly constant. Today there are still 20 members, five of whom, daughters of older members, are under 15-years-old.

But Sarah admits that, on the whole, young people don't find the group particularly attractive; although they're free to join "they just don't want to."

A more pressing concern, however, has been the devastating effect of drought in recent years. The lack of rainfall led to a reduction in the maize yield and consequently fewer customers came to use the mill, along with the increased competition from private operators, this was enough to send the Koitabai women's accounts into the red.

Eventually their electricity was cut when the group's income from the sale of posho failed to cover the KSH3,500 a month bill.

Right now Sarah says the group's future is uncertain because it has "gotten stuck." It desperately needs to raise funds to pay the electricity bills, a task she is "not optimistic" about.

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But there may be hope yet. Although for the last 25 years the group's primary concern has been grinding flour, more recently it has started to flirt with a new kind of jiko or stove.

Stout and portly, Naomi Towet beams as she steps out onto her front porch; a dish of chicken feed in hand, the gregarious 70-year-old is immediately engulfed by a squawking mass of hens and pullets. She leads them off for their afternoon feed before ushering us into her kitchen to examine the jiko donated by Self Help Africa.

"Two pieces of firewood means you can cook a meal for 10 people," she explains, adding that it would take twice as much wood to cook the same meal on a traditional stove.

She collects firewood from around her shamba, or small holding, and sometimes she buys it from local vendors at KSH1,500 a cartload.

But she, like most of the farmers around here, sees a future where she will have to buy all of her wood. As the Kenyan economy falters people are becoming more reliant on agriculture. Space is paramount on small farms and soon, Naomi estimates, she will have to cut down all the trees on her land to make more room for crops.

This all makes an enclosed jiko that burns half the amount of wood as the traditional open stove particularly attractive. Across the fields, another member of the Women's Group, Diana Kigen, says the money her new cooker saves her on firewood "can be spent to plant tree seedlings around the place. It's like an investment for me."

But apart from the savings, the cookers also provide the women with the potential to earn money. The group received training in how to build them and will, for KSH3,000 plus materials, install the stoves in their neighbours' homes.

Although they haven't embarked on this enterprise in earnest yet, Naomi says they plan to. In the end the group may have no other option. According to Sarah if they can't get the posho mill running again they will have to sell it. At one point this would have spelt the end of the group - its members would have split the proceeds from the sale and disbanded, but now, thanks to the jikos there may just be a plan B.

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