4.19.2017 | printed in the Spring 2017 issue of VITAL magazine
For most of her life, Winnie Cherotich, a ninth grader in Kenya, bounced from home to home around some of the roughest regions in one of the world’s poorest countries. She spent a lifetime struggling to find enough food, struggling to find decent clothes and struggling to survive.
“Sometimes,” she says, “you just had to starve.”
Today, though, Winnie is standing in bright sunshine in a field outside her new home — the Travellers’ Oasis Centre (TOC), an all-girls’ boarding school in a small village in southern Kenya — and she’s smiling.
“I cannot believe,” she says, “that I have found such a place. I cannot believe how much you have changed my life.”
Winnie is one of about 150 students at TOC, which houses and educates some of Kenya’s brightest, but most vulnerable, girls. She’s telling her story and talking about her future to the group from Seeds of Change, POET’s not-for-profit organization dedicated to “transforming education, agriculture and environmental conditions worldwide.”
She’s quiet at first, reserved even, but once she starts telling her story and transitions from looking back at a tough childhood to looking forward to what she can become, you just know that Winnie Cherotich can change the world.
“My dreams, I know now they are going to come true,” she says, and she can’t stop smiling. “I want to study hard and help show other girls that if you have a dream and ambition, you can get an education and stand up for yourself. I want to help other girls work hard so their dreams can come true.”
The team members from POET can’t stop smiling, either. Because this kind of story is exactly why they came to Kenya.
In January, a nine-person team of Seeds of Change board members and supporters — including POET Founder and CEO Jeff Broin, his wife Tammie and their daughters — visited Kenya on behalf of Seeds of Change, which serves as an umbrella organization for various POET-based outreach programs. The 10-day trip taken by this strategy team had a different focus than the annual POET mission trip. The goal was to confirm progress on two Seeds of Change-sponsored projects: Mission Greenfield, which teaches sustainable agricultural practices to Kenyan farmers, and Mission Greenhouse, which supports the TOC school.
What the team found, though, was not only confirmation of exciting progress but also affirmation that Mission Greenhouse and Mission Greenfield are changing lives — one farmer, one schoolgirl, one village and one country at a time.
For the past four years, POET team members and family members have made that 18-hour round trip from Sioux Falls, S.D., to the Travellers’ Oasis Centre.
In 2013, they built a greenhouse, the mission’s namesake, to grow fruits and vegetables to help make the school sustainable. In 2014, they dug foundations by hand and laid concrete blocks for a new dorm. In 2015, they painted rooms and put finishing touches on the new home for 150 girls. In 2016, they began construction for a new kitchen and dining hall.
In between annual trips, Seeds of Change supporters and board members receive regular updates — in the form of presentations and conference calls — on the progress of Mission Greenhouse.
Nothing, though, can match the real life experience of visiting the school, which serves as home for 160 girls in grades ninth through twelfth. These are some of Kenya’s brightest and most promising kids who come from some of the poorest and roughest regions in Kenya.
The strategy team toured the bright pink and blue and purple rooms of the recently completed dormitory. They explored the new kitchen and dining hall, which will also be used as a worship center and meeting place for the school. They inspected the greenhouses, which produce food year round.
“It was amazing to see it all in person,” says Alicia ElMamouni, director of the Seeds of Change Foundation. “It far exceeded our expectations. You can only get so much from a picture, from a report. We didn’t just look at pictures; we got to meet with people in person.”
While the strategy team didn’t do any physical bricklaying on this trip, they did lay the groundwork for May of 2017, when POET will send a team of about two dozen people back to TOC for the fifth straight year to start classroom renovations.
They met with Esther Muiu, who grew up foraging for roots for dinner, and today serves as principal of the TOC, the school she founded in the small village of Sultan Hamud, 60 miles from the capital of Nairobi.
“Until we go to heaven, you’ll never know how many students we’ve helped,” says Esther. “Because when you help one, she helps many more. That’s what makes us go. We never planned for this. We just saw a need and met it.”
They met with Mary Mwo, a mother of five and grandmother of six, who has been a teacher for 33 years, including the last five at TOC.
“The girls here have got something to smile about, and that is their future,” says Mary. “When we look at these girls we see doctors, we see architects, we see pharmacists. We see real people in our community.”
They met with many of the girls who, had they not been given the funding and opportunity to attend TOC, would have little or no chance to further their education. They would be toiling in poverty or perhaps living in dangerous conditions.
Like Fein Bonyo, whose single mom spends days going door to door in search of odd jobs. “If it were not for you I would still be at home stranded with no way of going to school,” says Fein. “It’s not just a school. It’s a home. If not for you guys I’d be helpless, hopeless.”
And Diana Sketch, whose family struggles for food because her dad is unable to work. “This school took away the pain that I had in life,” says Diana, who now dreams of being a lawyer. “You grow up in a life where you never have someone to hold you and wipe your tears. For me, I got someone to wipe my tears. I got someone who can take me to the light, someone who can take me to the top of the world.”
Hearing those girls’ stories was the kind of moving message that made the 8,500-mile journey from South Dakota suddenly seem short.
“The progress lived up to the hype,” says Miranda Broin, co-founder and board member of Seeds of Change. “We get a lot of updates, but it’s hard to gauge just how big a deal the progress is. To see the dorms in person, to say, ‘Hey, this is where I helped lay the foundation’ makes it all so real. It reminds us why we keep going.”
For Tammie Broin, it was also a reminder of the great need in Africa — and the opportunity that Seeds of Change has to touch so many lives. “The people touch your heart in such a special way. There’s so much need here. Anything we do just helps them. It helps the girls by keeping them out of the slums. It helps the farmers and gives them an opportunity to provide for their families.”
In 2012, during a church mission trip to Kenya’s Kakuswi School for the Deaf, Jeff Broin — who was raised on a farm — couldn’t stop studying the Kenyan corn, which was stunted, brown and drought-stricken. It was obvious there would be no harvest.
From that realization, Seeds of Change created Mission Greenfield, which funds more than 250 Village Based Advisors (VBAs) in rural regions of Kenya. These VBAs teach effective agricultural practices to hundreds of farmers each in the region.
Since 2013, Mission Greenfield has produced remarkable results every year, and that trend is projected to continue.
In 2015, Mission Greenfield supported 60 VBAs who each worked with 200 farmers, impacting 12,000 farms and an estimated 72,000 people.
As of early 2017, those numbers had jumped exponentially to 260 VBAs, leaving an impact on 80,000 farms and 450,000 people. After four years, those farms will be sustainable.
Tammie Broin saw a remarkable difference in the progress, especially compared to her first visit to Kenya four years ago. “To see the crops flourish and to see how now there is opportunity for them was amazing.” The trip also cemented friendships with people on the other side of the world, she says. “It was a life-changing experience. All of it. They become your extended family.”
The team toured small farm fields where corn crops were twice the size — and producing four times the yields — than just two seasons prior. They saw chicken broods that, due to vaccination programs, are able to maintain 50 or more chickens instead of three chickens in two years or less. And a new breed of chickens is being introduced that increases meat and egg production threefold.
“Think about what these increases mean to a farmer and his or her family,” says Paul Seward, a former UK farm kid who has spent the past two decades working to improve agricultural development in Kenya. “You now have enough food to feed your family as well as extra to sell for your kids’ school fees or to buy more seeds. That means ten times as many eggs to sell for medicine and clothing.”
Those statistics came to life when the team talked to Kenyans like Martin Kawei, a local farmer-turned-VBA who has helped 500 farmers in the surrounding villages. “We now have the technology to show other farmers how they can earn more money,” says Martin, who grows beans, cowpeas, corn, mangoes, avocadoes and arrowroot, and also raises chickens and goats. “I visit other farmers three times a week to show them how to cultivate their farms, to give vaccinations to their chickens.”
One of those farmers is Joyce Kameni Mutiota, a mother of five (and grandmother of four) who grows mangoes, avocados and corn on her four-acre farm. “Before Martin started vaccinating my chicks, it was not easy to have 10 chicks,” she says. “Now I have more than 50. I was producing three bags of maize, and now I am producing seven bags.”
Those improvements mean the difference between struggling to feed her family and earning excess money. “I can make the money to support my children . . . and even make my family stable,” says Joyce. “Through this program I can see that I will go far.”
For Jeff Broin, those first-person stories reinforce the fact that Seeds of Change can improve not just one person’s life but hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.
“The opportunity for agriculture in Africa is virtually untapped,” says Jeff. “The yield potential is exponential. The animal production level is exponential. When we hear real-life stories and see the results from the farmers involved, we remember exactly why we’re doing this.”
Seeds of Change would like to ramp up their involvement in Africa in the future. More funding and support is needed to reach farmers beyond Kenya. “For less than five dollars, we can make a huge difference in any one of the 450,000 people whose lives are changing because of our influence. The more participation we have, the more lives we change and the more impact we realize globally,” Alicia says.
“Farmers are known for being good neighbors, and for helping other farmers,” says Jeff. “The world has become so much smaller in so many ways. Today our neighbor can be on the other side of the world. It takes so little to do so much. Today we’re helping thousands, but with the help of farmers soon it could be millions.”
Those millions start with people like Martin, who has singlehandedly helped hundreds of farmers and their families to not only survive but also thrive.
And Mary Mwo, the TOC teacher who rescues girls from some of the worst conditions in Kenya, and sees them as “doctors, architects and pharmacists.”
And Diana, the student at the Travellers’ Oasis Centre, who says that the school, thanks in part to Seeds of Change, “took away the pain I had in life.”
“Thanks to you,” she says, “I am working hard. Thanks to you I know that, together, we can do something big.”
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by Steve Lange | photos by Alexander Mandiola