development pamoja

Meet the Irishman helping make a big difference to the lives of people in Kenya

Pamoja Together is a Kenyan charity that includes three Kenyans and one Corkman, who are all working with locals to help them improve their own lives.

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HE WAS BORN in rural Cork, and now James Hennessy has settled in rural Kenya – where he has teamed up with locals to help improve the lives of others.

Hennessy began working with NGOs after university and after relocating to Kenya, he formed Development Pamoja in 2009 with Mary Waruguru, David Okinja, and Masai Kipruto.

He originally came to Kenya to volunteer with a separate organisation before meeting Waruguru, Okinja and Kipruto. He felt that rural areas were neglected by most charitable organisations, and wanted to do something different.

He also became tired of working in the NGO industry “where sometimes it is hard to see if there is much of an impact”. The four of them shared the same feelings, so decided to team up together.

“We as a group envisaged creating a group more in the mould of a co-operative, with our main focus on agriculture,” he explained. They are now a fully-registered charity in Ireland.

Hennessy spoke to about the work Development Pamoja does, and its latest project, building a medical dispensary, for which they are trying to raise funding.

Development Pamoja A

What is life like in rural Kenya?

Rural life in Kenya can be quite hard. Most people in rural areas are farmers and with that subsistence farmers.

There are certainly some very arable areas in Kenya, these are the areas that the colonialists took when they came to Kenya, but for the most part, rural Kenya is semi arid and farming conditions are harsh.

We work in an area very near the Equator. It is a semi arid area which means that it is dry for the most part of the year, punctuated by two rainy seasons.

However these rain patterns are not always consistent. Right now we should be in the middle of the long rains but as of yet it has not rained, the short rains in November/December 2013 were also very poor.

This means that food security is going to be a problem over the next year. Most people in Sarambei where we are situated are subsistence farmers. On their one or two acres they will grow maize and beans for themselves and their families.

[image alt="Belion women's group who we built a greenhouse for." src="" width="630" height="472" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

When harvested in October the maize is then kept for their own consumption, any excess will be sold. But this year the likelihood is people will not harvest enough for their families, if it doesn’t rain in May they probably won’t harvest anything.

This just leads to a cycle of poverty, where people have now ploughed their land and purchased seeds but they will not harvest anything. The disposable income they used to plough the land has now been spent, so once their stock runs out they will have to source food from elsewhere with the little money they have left.

Most people in Sarambei also have cows as the people here are historically pastoralists. But at present there is not enough grass to adequately sustain their livestock. Milk production is declining and the condition of the cows is also deteriorating.

Then you get opportunists coming to such areas purchasing cows well below their market price and farmers having no option but to sell.

Dispensary 2

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

In 2009 we started by renting two acres of land and implementing an open field irrigation system, taking water from a nearby water source.

Then in 2011 we applied to Electric Aid in Ireland for a grant and were successful. We purchased three acres of land and have started a demonstration farm on how irrigation can be successfully initiated in a semi arid area. We dug a pond with a volume of 120,000 litres, built two greenhouses and also started open field drip irrigation systems.

The pond harvests rain water and this water is then used to grow crops such as tomatoes, onions, kale, spinach and peppers. We also plant drought-resistant crops such as cassavas and sweet potatoes. We practice crop rotation to show how it can benefit the soil.

People come to our farm and see the benefits, and we hold training sessions for local farmers.

A number of local farmers have begun to replicate our ideas. In Sarambei, six farmers have replicated the idea of digging a pond to harvest rain water and there are now four greenhouses under drip irrigation.

What you find is those that have ponds still have access to water while other farmers in Sarambei are now feeling the effects of the fact that the long rains have failed.

Training on our farm

Obviously the investment we have made on our farm is beyond the economic capabilities of most people in Sarambei so we provide people with credit to dig the ponds or build greenhouses.

Our neighbour wished to dig a pond on his land but did not have the capital to do so. To dig and line a 120,000 litre pond is approximately €800, we provided the money for him to dig the pond and he is now paying us back €50 a month.

In another example we partnered with a women’s group in Sarambei and we replicated our project on their farm. We dug a pond and built a greenhouse.

We provided them with a 50 per cent grant and the rest of the money that was needed to implement the project they are paying back to us over an 18 month period.

For other farmers who do have the capability to implement such projects we provide them with technical expertise and also help them in sourcing the materials required.

We always prefer providing people with micro finance loans to implement projects or implementing a cost sharing project where the person or group contribute 50 per cent or more of the capital and we assist with the rest.

I’ve seen countless projects fail in Kenya when an organisation comes in and implements a project but once they leave no one takes responsibility for it and the project fails.

Tell us about your project for livestock farmers?

The people in Sarambei where our farm is situated regard livestock as being very important.

It’s a measure of your standing in society and is also the main source of income for families. However due to poor farming practices, most people do not see a huge benefit from their livestock.

They walk their cows long distance to grass and water, there is a huge problem with foot and mouth in the area and the cows are primarily indigenous breeds which yield very little milk.

To change these farming practices, we are initiating a zero grazing project whereby we grow grass specifically for fodder and have the cows in situ on our farm.

We are digging a second pond to ensure that the cows will have adequate water. We also wish to introduce different breeds of cows in the area, high yield cows mixed with indigenous breeds to ensure they can survive in a semi arid climate.

This project which is been part funded by Electric Aid hopes to show local farmers that if you sow grass seed specifically for feeding your cows, have ready access to water and introduce other breeds you can increase your milk yield, which in turn will increase the disposable income.

Lining a pond for rain water harvesting

You’ve started work on a medical dispensary. Why is this needed and what will the dispensary do? How difficult is it to access medical treatment in the area you live in?

The government in Kenya have made massive inroads in getting medical services to the people of Kenya.

Since June 2013 there is free maternity care in public hospitals, which has led to an increase in women delivering in hospitals, which in turn will lead to a down turn in complications at birth.

Despite these steps forward, access to medical care is still a problem, particularly in rural Kenya. The village of Sarambei and three neighbouring villages have no local medical facility. The closest hospital is in the town of Mogotio.

Sarambei experiences the same health issues that affect most areas of Kenya, with far too many people still dying from preventable and curable diseases such as malaria and typhoid.

Dispensary 1

We are building a dispensary which will enable us to treat those affected by such diseases in Sarambei and the surrounding areas.

We will also work in conjunction with the Ministry of Health in Kenya to bring vaccinations to children under the age of five, provide drugs such as de-worming tablets and hold workshops on public health to prevent diseases such as malaria and typhoid.

Can you tell me about the physiotherapy side to the facility?

In 2012 we started a disability project with an organisation from Ireland called the Caring and Sharing Association (CASA).

CASA work with disabled people in Ireland and wished to partner with local groups in Kenya to assist the disabled people here.

Disability in Kenya is still a taboo subject, with many attributing it to witchcraft and other such beliefs. In fact when we went around Sarambei and neighbouring villages to see if the project would be viable we were startled by the amount of disabled people, both mental and physical we encountered that we never knew existed. The reason being is families see it as shameful and in many cases the disabled person was forced to stay at home and was not shown in public.

However with the help of CASA we were able to start getting disabled people and their families into groups, in all there are four groups and we meet each group once a month.

In the group we cook for the members and also run various activities for the disabled. We have started placing those who can go to school in different educational facilities and also provide assistance to disabled parents to ensure their children are educated.

Cows in search of grass and water

We also cater for the medical costs of those who are disabled both mentally and physically if they are not in a position to cover the costs of the medical treatment.

For those with physical disability this means that the majority of them need to go for physiotherapy and occupational therapy on a weekly basis.

Unfortunately for those we assist, the closest hospital they can access physiotherapy from is in Nakuru. Development Pamoja cover the cost of the physiotherapy and the transport costs.

The transport costs on average are five times more expensive than the actual treatment.

For this reason we felt it made sense to try and bring this service closer to the people in our program.

We send on average 20 people for physiotherapy every week. Once we have the dispensary up and running this service will be closer to those we currently assist and we will be able to extend the service to even more people.

How much will it cost to run the centre? Are you fundraising for it?


The whole idea of starting the dispensary came about through our links with a missionary priest living in Nakuru who had received some money and asked us would we have any use for it.

Through his kind assistance we have been able to put up most of the structure.

To date we have spent approximately €10,000, however to complete building the structure and kitting it out will cost a further €10,000.

We are fundraising for it and once the dispensary is up and running we will charge people to cover the cost of running the facility. Those people who are part of our disability project, we will continue to cover the cost of their treatment but for the general population we will charge them for treatment.

That charge will not be much: consultation will be approximately €1, but this money will go towards the running of the facility.

How long will it take the centre to build/get it up and running?

We started building the dispensary in February 2014. We are currently plastering the inside and next step is to wire it and plumb it. Once that is done we have to wait to be connected to the national grid. The government has taken huge steps to ensure rural areas access electricity and we are hoping that we will be able to get connected to the grid very soon.

The physiotherapy side of the project can begin without electricity.

All going well, the physiotherapy unit will be up and running by July/August and the hospital as a whole we would aim to have it fully functional by January 2015.

Dispensary 3

Do you get a lot of support from Ireland?

We get huge support from Ireland. We have a board of seven directors who do a lot of fundraising for us. There are also a lot of people who have visited our projects and having seen the projects have continued to support us.

I also have to mention the huge support we get from the Caring and Sharing Association, and also Electric Aid.

How do you find life in Kenya?

I really enjoy living in Kenya. I can speak the national language Swahili and can speak a few words in some of the local dialects. I feel at home in Sarambei where we work.

I get to partake in local customs – last week I was at our neighbour’s engagement where the two families met to negotiate on the dowry price for the bride.

I was invited to that as a member of the community and it’s nice to no longer be looked upon as the random white guy in the area, by now people know who I am and the novelty of me been here has worn off.

Kenya is culturally so diverse with each of the 42 tribes having their own language and own different cultures. The differences in the country can also be very stark. If you travel to the North of the country you can encounter terribly poverty but if you go to Nairobi you can walk into a shopping mall that is no different to any capital city in the developed world.

To find out more about Development Pamoja visit their Facebook page or website.

Read: Irish man teams up with Kenyans to give “trade without aid” >

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