A Chance Encounter Changes a Life
Care for the Earth
Driving down the packed red earth road in Ajigo Kenya, toward Kasim Bilali’s office, the first thing you encounter is more than 37 acres (15 hectares) of maize, with chickens, turkeys, goats and cows grazing the fields, a typical landscape in Nyanza province. But up ahead are several well-kept buildings with tile roofs. They are home to Care for the Earth, an organic farming organization that strives to train Kenyan farmers to grow crops without the use of fertilizers.
Kasim Bilali created Care for the Earth in 1993 to ensure that neighboring communities learn about ways to reduce poverty, ensure food security and seize agribusiness opportunities. In Ajigo, Bilali reclaimed and transformed arid land. At Care for the Earth, community farmers can learn how to plant different kinds of crops, properly tend livestock and other farm animals, and how to create and use compost.
Crops vary from bananas and mangoes to beans and watermelons. To the naked eye, the land looks like any other farm, but Bilali created Care for the Earth to be much more than that. In addition to offering training to local residents on agribusiness methods, the center provides assistance so children can go to school–but on one condition. Bilali explained, “During school holidays, the kids must come back and work here as volunteers to learn the art of giving not just receiving.”
The idea for Care for the Earth began long before Bilali purchased the land. It began with one good deed. When Bilali, a Muslim, was 16 he was tending his father’s cattle when a Catholic priest passed him on the roadside. Father Bertebb Ebben asked him why he was not in school and Bilali explained that his parents could not afford the school fees. The priest offered to pay the fees. Everything that Bilali went on to do in his schooling, in his community, and later in Care For the Earth was a product of this one chance encounter.
Bilali attended Kisumu Muslim Secondary School and, later, Baraka Agricultural College in Molo where he specialized in agriculture. Later, he worked for Sustainable Agriculture Community Development Programmes of Kenya (SACDEP) for one year and trained people on sustainable community development. But he always wondered why he was fortunate to have been the recipient of aid from Fr. Ebben a Catholic priest from the United States.
Why me among all the people in the village,” he said. “Was there something special about me? Was there something else that I didn’t know? And then, I said to myself: how do I pay back the assistance I was given?
Father Ebben, who supported Bilali’s schooling, was the man who first funded Care for the Earth. The organization began slowly and was focused on agriculture as a business, environmental protection and community development. He used the skills he had learned in college and as a field trainer, and began to create an organization. But there was one critical promise he made to himself.
“Whatever aid I get, it must be used where it can be doubled,” Bilali said. And so far, he has managed to stay true to that promise. He has not taken any outside aid funding since the year 2000.Gideon Balala, a local subsistence farmer, benefited from Care for the Earth’s community trainings. “He came with knowledge,” Gideon said of Bilali. “He came with support. He came with a plan.”
Bilali teaches farmers like Gideon how to diversify crops so they can sell them in the local market. Gideon consults with Bilali on the correct crops to plant and when. Angeline Aoko Owuor is another neighboring subsistence farmer who benefited from Care for the Earth’s community trainings. “I learned how to produce milk from goats,” Angeline said in Luo, the local language. “I had goats before but didn’t know that they could produce milk.” Angeline also learned the best times of the year to plant certain crops. Now she uses her land more thoughtfully and chooses which crops to plant when in order to maximize her yields.
|Angeline Aoko Owuor||Jorn Jacobs|
Bilali offers volunteer opportunities at Care For the Earth. This is one of the ways he doubles each contribution. People like Jorn Jacobs, from the Netherlands, come from around the world to volunteer. He weeds, builds up the compost pile and takes care of farm animals. Bilali has also received four volunteers from the United States in the past, including one Peace Corps volunteer. Jorn will be volunteering for three months.
“I’ve only been here three days,” he said. “It’s beautiful here.”
In addition to community trainings on agribusiness methods and environmental protection, Bilali has also converted some of the property into a conference center, with rooms for twenty guests. Payment for these facilities helps contribute to the self-sustainability of the organization.
Families come for picnics and enjoy a farm in the area that uses natural methods to harness natural resources. Bilali planted trees that act as organic water collectors. This has changed the climate of the area from dry land to wetland. The neighbouring communities have put Bilali’s skills into practice by planting more trees on their own land.
When locals who have benefited from Bilali’s contribution to the community talk about the farm, one thing rings true. “He’s a teacher.” Gideon said. Kenya needs many teachers like Bilali, teachers who are focused on finding sustainable ways to grow crops, tend animals, and give back to their local communities.
In Kenya, 75% of people rely on subsistence farming in some form or other. Another 52% practice small-scale farming. These farmers lack skills, finance options and access to information. Subsistence farmers often overuse and degrade the land they live off of because their plots are so small and they have no other source of putting food on the table.