Approaching Rael Rutto’s home in Kipsongol on a hot summer afternoon in Kenya’s Narok County, we can hear children in the homestead before we see them. Squeals of laughter erupt from a soccer game in the yard and carry all the way to the road.
Inside, we find Rael in the kitchen adding sticks to the fireplace, cooking corn and beans. Beside her, two small kids wait patiently.
At 62 years old, Rael did not expect to be playing the role of mother to six grandchildren. After raising 12 children of her own, she looked forward to spoiling her grandchildren during holidays and the occasional sleepover.
In 2015, her second-born son died suddenly of an infection. His wife was unemployed, and asked Rael to take in their four children so she could go to another town to look for work. Rael agreed, but she had concerns.
Rael and her husband, Jonathan, were corn farmers, but their one acre of land was too small to provide for a growing family. Crop yields weren’t enough to feed, clothe and educate the children.
With no source of income, Rael felt helpless. “I did not know what to do,” she says.
She enrolled the older children at the nearby Kipsongol Primary School and the younger ones at the adjoining nursery school—the same school where Rael’s own children learned and grew up. WE Charity partnered with the school in 2012 to build additional classrooms and equip the students with desks.
Once the children started school, Rael had to get better at saving, she says. The children needed uniforms and supplies in addition to food. She heard of Kipsongol Farmers’ Group, which had launched a year earlier and started a community farm in the area. Members ran the farm and turned a barren plot of land into fields of kale, tomatoes and onions. There was even a greenhouse constructed—the only one in the community. She wondered if the group would be her answer.
The community farm had been started by WE Charity as part of their food sustainability programming, providing training on best practices to help local farmers get more from their harvests, including inter-cropping and irrigation.
Rael’s neighbour, Alice Sing’oe, was already a member. Alice explained how they grew spinach, cabbage and potatoes. Most interesting, Alice shared how they would sell the produce at the market and save the profits. From the various training workshops, Alice made the decision to start growing kale, onions, and tomatoes on her farm at home—and was seeing positive results. Rael was intrigued. She asked to join the group, and her neighbours agreed, outlining the commitment she had to agree to: meet twice weekly to farm, weed or harvest and contribute any amount she could toward the group’s savings every week.
She never missed a day of working on the community farm. Right away, Rael started implementing what she learned in her small kitchen garden next to her homestead. Previously, she planted kale but would only harvest a handful to cook for the family. She started using organic fertilizer, as she had been taught, and kept rotating the plants for nutrient distribution.
She started harvesting an extra sack of kale. After feeding her family, there was enough left over to sell. She began growing and selling vegetables in a small shop out of her home, which she opened in 2017. She’s since expanded to include soap, sugar and tea leaves in her inventory. She and her husband decided to rent a farm near their home and have been planting corn there, as well as on their own land, which they sell when they harvest.
She’s proud that the income she earns from the shop and the farm means she’s taking better care of her grandchildren. In 2017 she was able to take a loan from the group, which she used to buy a goat. She has since repaid that loan.
In 2018, two more grandchildren came to stay with Rael. Their mother passed away after a long illness. While grieving her daughter, Rael says this time she knows she will be able to take care of the two kids.
Rael says her grandkids keep her young, and she loves them twofold, as a grandmother and a mother. She wants to make sure they never have to choose between an education and a healthy meal, and she plans on living long enough to see them all finish school. “I want them to grow strong and healthy so they can be successful.”
She’s leading by example.