Through Heidi’s Lens: Kitale, Kenya

Sitting on the office back-deck, looking at the lush green yard, birds chirping in the distant acacia trees, I can’t help but think to myself, I love this place. While the majority of my posts will focus on the Village Enterprise program, I feel that it is necessary to shine light on one of our East African offices and the place that I have come to call home: Kitale, Kenya.

Kitale is an agricultural town that has been deemed “the cereal basket of Kenya” for its large production of maize, wheat, and dairy products. I, for one, cannot oppose this title. In fact, my slogan for Kitale has become “maize for days” because you simply cannot walk anywhere in Kitale without passing vast maize fields.

In contrast to the boundless agricultural fields that compose the majority of Kitale, the market center is bustling and booming. Vendors travel from throughout Trans-Nzoia County in this Western part of Kenya to sell their produce, creating a vibrant local market culture. Stall after stall are lined with bananas, onions, avocados, maize, beans, and other seasonal fruits and vegetables.

While wandering through the aisles of the local market is a favorite pastime of mine, others prefer a larger market of sorts: the supermarket. Kitale is rapidly developing which is evident by the three large supermarkets that have sprung up in the last two years. These supermarkets mirror all of the popular chains in the United States and even have one of my favorite treats, Nutella. Supermarkets aren’t the only sign of impending growth. Apartment buildings are under construction left and right, major bank chains have moved into town, and second-floor, open-air restaurants overlook the crowded streets of Kitale. There is even a luxury hotel, complete with a swimming pool, that our Director of Strategic Partners and Innovation, Ellen Metzger, has cleverly coined “Disneyland.” Rumors have it that with the development of the East African Railway line from Mombasa, Kenya to Bujumbura, Burundi, Kitale is projected to become one of the next major cities in Kenya.

The Village Enterprise office is located on a 24-acre farm which is a 40-minute walk (or a 10-minute piki-piki ride) outside of town. The farm is owned by Mrs. Lebo, the widow of General Lebo, who served in the army during President Moi’s reign. She now manages the operations for multiple farms throughout Kitale and is recognized as a respected businesswoman around town. Cows, chickens, goats, and a pair of crested cranes wander through the farm pastures and keep the office lively with their clamor. The office yard has beautifully groomed lawns and an assortment of elegant plants, all a different vibrant shade of green. The lawn does not go without use. Every other week, all of our Kenya business mentors attend trainings that take place in a tent on the preened lawn. At lunch we lounge under the shade of the trees, eating the amazing ugali (maize porridge) and local vegetables prepared by our lovely cook, Beatrice Mahiva.

All of the Kenya staff live in close proximity to the office. When I take my evening strolls around the neighborhood, I almost always bump into one of my coworkers who invite me to his or her home to meet family members and enjoy a cup of tea. On weekends, I’ll catch sight of another coworker purchasing milk from Mrs. Lebo across the yard. In this way relationships transcend the walls of the office. In the U.S. my work relationships often felt formal but I find it refreshing how my coworkers are more like family here.

Kitale is absolutely stunning, but there is a reason why Village Enterprise operates here. Trans-Nzoia County has an overall poverty rate of 60% with pockets reaching as high as 90%. In many of the poorest areas, plot sizes have been sub-divided to the point that families are left with only 0.02 acres of land to subsist on, resulting in extreme population density and high poverty rates. Many of these small-scale farmers and those that have been left landless struggle to obtain a sustainable income and are trapped in a cycle of poverty. It is the goal of Village Enterprise to not only provide these individuals with the resources to create sustainable businesses, but also to empower them to create a better life for themselves and their families.

Kitale is physically gorgeous, but what I have realized is that it is the people of Kitale that make this town so special. Business owners have repeatedly shown me their hospitality by offering food and beverages during my visits. Others offer their time by acting as my personal guide when I conduct interviews in a new village. I often find business owners shaking my hand and expressing their gratitude for the Village Enterprise program, but at the end of the day, I wish that I could find the words to convey how thankful I am for having the chance to meet with them, listen to their stories, and to be reminded of the value of developing personal relationships.

The Village Enterprise office in Kitale, Kenya.The Village Enterprise office in Kenya.

Roadside sign pointing to Village Enterprise Kitale, Kenya, officeThe Village Enterprise office is located a 40-minute walk from the main town on a 24-acre farm.

main road in Kitale, KenyaThe main road leading into Kitale Town is constantly buzzing with traffic.

vegetables in the Kitale, Kenya, marketThe Kitale market contains aisles of vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables.buildings along the road in Kitale, KenyaTuskys is one of the three main supermarkets located in Kitale Town.

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