On Onesimus – by Scott Bond

November 16, 2010 by editor

Onesimus is the kind of project that would grab the attention of any entrepreneur. As our group toured the facility, the team was enraptured. The company taps into one of the largest markets in Kenya’s Rift Valley: milk.

Onesimus, a project begun by ELI, is empowering the people of rural Kipkeran, Kenya by giving them a place to sell their surplus milk. It may not sound like anything groundbreaking to a Westerner, but in a region where a normal income is around $1.00-2.00/day, cows are in abundance and refrigeration is rare, the fact that small-scale local farmers now have a place to sell their milk (rather than watch it spoil) is making a significant impact.

David Tarus, the Director of Onesimus, fielded a barrage of questions from our intrigued team. How does it work? How do you select from whom to buy? Where do you sell all of this milk? As we spoke, dozens of farmers trickled in on bicycle, on foot and on motorcycle, lugging one and two-gallon milk containers. It was apparent that word had spread quickly about this new program, and that it was having a widespread effect.

The company has only been in operation for less than a year, but it already buys from more than 3,400 farmers. Although it has a refrigerated storage capacity of about 2000 gallons/day, David explained that the facility was designed to empower the impoverished, and it does not matter how much milk a farmer brings, whether a few cups or 100 liters, it will be purchased for distribution as long as it passes the quality check.

This is a source of hope for this community of small-scale farmers, who initially produced milk only for consumption by their families but are beginning to see the potential to turn farming into a small business. Aside from milk purchasing, Onesimus also provides a variety of other services, including health checkups for farmers’ cows, educational seminars for improving milk yield and at-cost artificial insemination from purebred bulls to increase the farmers’ milk production in future generations.

I could see pride in David’s eyes as he told the story of a woman who has become a regular there. Every day, rain or shine, she makes the bicycle trip to Onesimus on the rough and often muddy dirt roads and sells them a mere half liter of milk (making the equivalent of about 30 cents a day). One morning two weeks before our visit, he was startled to hear shouts of excitement coming from the milk collection area. Upon investigation, he found that for the first time, the woman had arrived with a full liter of milk to sell, and the staff had gathered around to congratulate her.

Go nearly anywhere in this community and you will see these farmers making their daily voyage to town along the muddy dirt roads, dozens of bright colored milk containers dangling from their bicycles. Already, the company’s business is funneling an average of $76,000 a month into this impoverished rural community – an astounding number when one considers the value of the U.S. dollar here.

Onesimus was designed to benefit ELI’s Children’s Home in Kipkaren, where 96 orphans are fed and educated, but it is also helping to build up the community as a whole. It is a business, and just like any other, the topics of market value, competition and the bottom line are central to its operations. However, when you sit down to a cup of hot chai tea with David, it won’t take you long to realize that there is much more to it for them than simply turning a profit. It is a company designed to teach and empower this community, and its effects can already be seen rippling through this place. The same cows that used to produce five liters a day are now producing 15 and 20. Farmers are now able to pay their children’s school fees. They are opening savings accounts. They are even raising more cows.

As I pour the milk for my morning cereal, I have to admit that milk is tasting a bit different to me now.

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Categories: Intern Voice Kenya