Her neighbours laughed when she told them she was trying to grow tomatoes in her kitchen garden. They said the conditions were too difficult.
There wasn’t enough rain.
The ground was too hard.
The seeds wouldn’t grow.
Betty Kirui didn’t let that stop her.
Now, the mother of four is the go-to person for fresh vegetables in Narok County, Kenya. Over the past two years, this businesswoman has gained popularity in Rongena community as the reliable supplier of fresh kale and tomatoes—and it’s all thanks to her small, 1/8-acre kitchen garden.
But the journey to get here—to be an entrepreneurial fresh veg provider—took seven years.
Once having children, Betty and her husband relied on whatever money they got from her husband’s construction work and the small shop they owned to sustain the family’s needs. The money, she says, wasn’t always enough to feed, clothe and take the kids to school.
So, in 2010, Betty started her kitchen garden with the sole purpose of saving money. She knew the vegetables in the garden would offset the high cost of buying food from the market.
The problem was that her farm wasn’t yielding much. At the time, she was only planting kale. According to Betty, her produce was often badly damaged by pests and would wilt.
“I was planting the same thing on the same piece of land over and over and using chemical fertilizers. It damaged the soil,” she adds, speaking to me in Swahili. When it came time to harvest, she didn’t have much to show for her work. That was until she teamed up with WE.
WE Charity works with communities in the Maasai Mara to eliminate barriers that stop children from accessing quality education. This includes a lack of nutritional food.
In 2015, WE worked with Rongena community members to grow nutritional food and find a new way to secure an income. When the trainer mentioned selling produce from kitchen gardens, Betty was intrigued. When the trainer said WE would provide the training to improve growing crops, she was inspired. This is what she was looking for.
According to the World Food Programme, the number of Kenyans facing food insecurity is on the rise—the reasons include drought and the high cost of seeds and fertilizers, making domestic food production more expensive. In short, people cannot afford to eat.
WE’s approach to food security is holistic. One aspect of the program encourages and trains community members to create productive kitchen gardens. Most families have a small piece of land next to their homes in rural Kenya, but the land is often underutilized.
Betty was using her land, but not very successfully: “I had been farming for five years but would only harvest enough for my family to eat and sometimes I still had to buy more from the market. The harvest did not reflect the work I was putting in.”
After a few training sessions with WE, she realized the problem was her farming style. She was introduced to rotational farming, where instead of always planting kale, she started swapping in beans and potatoes. She also began using organic manure instead of chemical fertilizers.
Betty’s garden improved, and this motivated her to take it one step further.
WE partnered with the government to offer a specialized three-month training program to enhance soil quality for horticulture. Betty once again signed up. The three months quickly passed, and upon completion, Betty decided to put her newfound skills to the test and grow something not farmed by her neighbours—tomatoes.
Farmers in the area shy away from planting tomatoes because of the arid nature of the land and the constant attention the crop demands compared to corn and kale.
“People think tomatoes don’t grow properly here and they fear the risks involved. They thought I was crazy,” she explains. But she did it anyway, using the knowledge and techniques she learned. To her delight, her first harvest was plentiful, with more tomatoes than her family could eat.
Now, her kitchen garden does more than feed her family. The entrepreneurial mom sells kale and tomatoes to her neighbours as well. Success of her tomato sales spread beyond the community and reached a local hotel—the manager got in touch and Betty is now its proud tomato supplier.
“Because of this farm, my children will never have to worry that they cannot go to school,” she says. She also used her new income to build a bigger house for herself and her family.
In future, Betty plans to expand her farm. In the meantime, she uses her kitchen garden and newfound skills to help train her neighbours on the best farming practices and techniques. She even inspired a few to start growing tomatoes themselves.