What is Africa really like? Images flash through our minds, images we’ve picked up from movies and mission groups. But unless we’ve been there, can we really know what it’s like?
Until we know, how can we build friendships with those across the globe? How can we encourage them in their pursuits until we know what their goals and what their challenges are? And how can we learn from their innovation, and draw from their motivation, unless we are connected to each other? We American rabbit breeders have strong ties with breeders in Candada, Europe and Australia. We’re fostering rabbit communities in Japan and the East Indies. But Africa? That’s been off our radar. And that means we’re missing out on great opportunities.
Stories start with E-mails
A few years ago I got a neat e-mail. Mr. Ndagwe Okeda, of Bituyu Village, Kenya, sent a message thanking me for the information on the Rabbit Smarties website, and letting me know that he was using it for the rabbit project he started with the youth in his village.
I’m thrilled when anyone finds my scribblings helpful. I’m honored that members and leaders all around the US have used them. But from Kenya? I had never even thought about rabbit raising in Africa! What breeds did they have there, and which colors? Did they feed pellets? How could they keep rabbits in the extreme heat? I had to know more.
So I asked questions. And Mr. Okeda has wonderfully shared many details about his rabbit project, and gently corrected my ignorance in several areas. (For starters, Nairobi area doesn’t get extreme heat – it’s a temperate climate.) He started a rabbit project with youth members in his village, but moved to the capital city of Nairobi in 2012. Good news is he took the rabbit project with him and now is reaching out to youth groups to get them involved.
I think he’s on the brink of exciting success. Ndagwe has a ton of motivation and a comprehensive management plan for sponsoring rabbit projects across his region: projects that will provide youth and their families with income, healthy food, community enrichment, and pleasure – all the reasons why we see the rabbit project is so beneficial in our country.
Sound fascinating? You bet it is. Want to join in? Now you can! On March 6 (at 3:00 a.m., my time) I conducted an e-mail interview with Ndagwe to share with you all. We talked about the details of his project and how we can partner together help it thrive.
Rabbit Raising Developments in Kenya: an E-mail Interview with Ndagwe Okeda of Nairobi
Ellyn E: To kick us off, could you introduce us to yourself and your project?
Ndagwe Okeda: I am an organic farming hobbyist who has been gardening since childhood – but as a hobby. I got into rabbit keeping by way of trying seek alternative means of occupation for youth in my village in the year 2010.
Children were more exited with rabbit keeping and I started partnering with their parents to construct cages and I would donate two Does per child. This led to more interest but challenges arose due to safety of the rabbits. Theft and wild animal attacks were more common.
I later relocated to a county near Nairobi in 2012 and introduced the project to the residents mainly the youth who were receptive and are still pushing the project.
EE: What gave you the vision to begin rabbit projects (versus other types of projects)?
By the way, are things with the strike better today? That definitely sounded challenging. [Our interview was delayed a day due to a public transportation strike in Nairobi.]
NO: Many issues led me to rabbit keeping. The poverty in our villages, idleness of the youth, lack of employment and lack of good production from our farms. I saw that the rabbit could and is able to solve these problems that surround us.
The strike has fizzled out, thank you
EE: Was it difficult to find good stock to start out with?
NO: Good stocks are available but expensive. So I have been using what I can afford.
EE: If I’m not mistaken, your vision is two-fold: both to help communities in a physical sense by providing a source of income and a sustainable food resource, and to help in a broader sense by building character in teens. Let’s talk about the first part of that first, even though it’s perhaps the less important side of things.
In a physical sense, what ways does the rabbit benefit the community? Is it helpful as a source of healthy and renewable food, or as income for families, or both?
NO: It is both. The community believes in hard work just like any other, but you can work hard and not earn enough to sustain yourself. Land is available in smaller and smaller sizes for the average citizen and calls for better production techniques to increase yields. The rabbit easily subsidizes the meat requirements for the family while at the same time providing useful products such as droppings to use as farmyard manure. There is a growing market for pets as well.
Both the live rabbits can be sold to the next member of the community or on the general market, thus bringing income to the home. The manure can also be sold (the urine too fetched good cash) [as fertilizer].
EE: Oh, neat. That makes perfect sense — raising rabbits is a way to be more productive with the same amount of work and land.
I know a big part of your mission is to support youth and help them be productive with their time. This is a cause that rabbit breeders in the US are especially interested in. Here we have strong youth programs, such as 4-H, to promote leadership skills and purpose in children as they mature.
Can you share a success story, or a moment where you knew the rabbit project was making a positive difference in a child’s life?
NO: One parent took up my idea of the son (11) and daughter (9) keeping rabbits. I constructed one cage and due to the interest of the children in grew to two cages – the girl wanted to have her own. The parents noted that their son had become more responsible – coming home straight from school to make sure the rabbits are fed with the help of his sister. Incidentally his school performance also improved – I am yet to connect this to the rabbit keeping.
The sad part, the bunnies were stolen.
EE: So tell us about your current focus with the project.
NO: I introduced the rabbit project to a number of youth groups but I got mixed results.
Below is a sample of the activities;
Group 1 – This is a group of 20 youth who live in a slum (located 7 miles from my home). Worked with them to get a government loan which they used to build cages and purchase 10 rabbits for breeding. They worked so well for 6 months then they disagreed and the project has collapsed.
Group 2 – A family project run by their 22 year-old son (located 80 miles from my home). This project developed from 10 rabbits to now 70 full grown rabbits and 80 kits. However, the family is now engaged in selling meet due to financial difficulties. They have offered to sell me the rabbits and end the project. I am in the process of looking for funds to purchase them since I have other groups interested in the project.
Group 3 – A church based youth group (located 25 miles from my home). Very encouraging team of teens who are enthusiastic about rabbitry. They love the rabbits and are always seeking advice. We constructed a cage for them and they are taking good care of them.
I was almost giving up on introducing families to rabbitry, but Group 3 has made me to work even harder for the spread of this project. I have incorporated a company (Phelbronn Enterprises) to carry out this project and there is no stopping now. My current challenge is facilitating training and support since they are mainly unemployed young people.
I have now focused on church based youth groups since these are more stable and have land where they can run the project. I am also discussing with schools to introduce the project to the children for both education and fun.
I am currently using my cages for serving does so that the new members of my project receive does which are already served. I am planning to build more cages for myself since there is also a need for pet rabbits.
[Update: Ndagwe sent an e-mail on 3/27/14 saying, “I have identified a primary (elementary) school where the management has agreed that we work with the children 2hrs per week to get them interested in rabbits and the value they bring in our life. I plan to use the videos you sent me in 2012 as a starting point. This is an urban community school based on the east of Nairobi city. This is a breakthrough that I am excited about.”
EE: That’s very exciting! Is there anything more you’d like to share about your company, Phelbronn Enterprises?
NO: Yes. The company is the business end of the activities I am involved in. building cages, procuring rabbits, selling rabbits and my organic farm management activities. Other work like organising youth into groups and registering them with the government, training sessions and knowledge support I do it on a volunteer basis.
Why volunteer? Rabbits are not yet popular in Kenya so I opted to work with the capacity I have.
What are the challenges of raising rabbits in Africa?
EE: Wow, that sounds like a lot of work, on top of the challenges you face with raising the rabbits themselves. You’ve mentioned theft and wild animal attacks as being the primary difficulties, but having raised rabbits myself, I know there are others. Part of the project includes growing food for the rabbits, correct?
NO: Growing rabbit food is easy in Kenya. We do organic farming for the small scale farmers and most of the weeds are food, we subsidize with hay. In the city outskirts we have rabbit pellets which can be used in place of weeds and vegetables.
However, the youth have to be trained on how to make the weeds dry before feeding. sometimes if consistency is not maintained, we lose some. The training is vital in this regard.
[In an earlier e-mail on this topic, before relocating to Nairobi, Ndagwe wrote:
“Initially, we did not have the rabbit project at our youth training center, but the idea came up when we realized that bio-intensive agriculture has a by-product of rabbit friendly weeds. So instead of using these weeds to make our compost, we decided to move them a step further in the food chain.
“WEEDS, RABBIT FOOD, – RABBIT DROPPINGS, – MANURE, – WEEDS + FOOD FOR THE CENTER
“At the center we have a policy of recycling whatever we can. Wild rabbits have always inhabited our village, hence the name (Bituyu Village), but the concentration is now on farms where organic agriculture is being practiced. This is what gave us the idea to start rearing them.” ]
EE: what about equipment? If money was no object, are the proper supplies within reach?
NO: What I have been using is OK for subsistence but for a serious venture, I need real solutions. The cages I talked about were what I could afford but I have seen the results of poor equipment and I am almost through with an affordable but robust design which I plan to start producing.
Most of the cage designs available here are for secure environments. Material for construction is readily available.
EE: Excellent. If you ever need some feedback I know a number of people here that produce cages.
It sounds like you are making great strides to change the face of rabbit raising in Kenya. When I see something innovative and beneficial like that going on, I want to know how I can be of support, and I’m sure others feel the same. In our past conversation, you’ve mentioned sharing information as a way we can help, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But first I want to ask if we can be of support financially as well. You’ve never asked for donations, but I know there is a need for stock, equipment, promotional and educational materials, and there are management costs.
If we wanted to support in that way, what are the primary needs right now?
NO: Africa has always had donations to the Government and NGOs but this money does not reach the needy cause. I set myself to first do my experiments within my community and be a donor/partner and it has given me results to smile about.
The community is more appreciative of a partnership. This has not been done by the many NGOs that bring donor money to our continent. Why am I talking about a partnership – the people I work with first have to appreciate the idea and embrace the project, then they offer suggestions on the way forward holding the vision in mind. I guide them through this and we come to an agreement on implementation. People feel a sense of ownership in this way. They will work better and with more determination.
Where do donations come in? Infrastructure (cages) – these are quite expensive. We could create a revolving fund where each group or school refunds the donation when they sell their produce (SUSTAINABILITY) . The money can then be used to fund other areas.
Training material and facilitation is another area which needs donation but I propose it is done only in the initial phase of the project – later it should become sustainable.
Okay, so let’s talk about Partnership
EE: Ha, I totally agree with you that just handing money to people doesn’t usually help. But I love your vision. You’re in charge. Let’s skip the talk about “donations” and talk about a partnership. Can we be involved in that? (Such as your revolving fund idea?)
NO: You are welcome with open arms. Since the project is ongoing, we can give it a push with you as partners.
I sent you a request recently because the rabbits that this family want to sell off was my first breed of Californian White and I was intending to purchase them for extension of the project. We have just completed the cages but ran out of cash to purchase the rabbits. This is an ideal case for a donation – but we can also move it into the revolving fund I proposed.
Thanks for the offer to assist us.
EE: Sounds great. Send me details or ideas on the fund whenever you are ready. I’m excited to hear that you have the opportunity to work with some Californians, as the photos of rabbits you sent me a while ago looked like mixed breeds.
But for now, let’s talk briefly about training materials. In the past you’ve mentioned that video is a preferred medium. Do you still feel that way? Would materials be more accessible on a central training website, or if internet access is spotty, would it be better to distribute them in hard copies such as on an SD card? Or most likely, both would be best. I’m brainstorming here.
NO: Internet is OK with me. If we can find them on a webpage the better.
[Update: Ndagwe has found a young man willing to work on developing a training website, which we can help with.]
EE: I’m going to sound terribly ignorant here, but is there a language barrier? Is English the primary language of the children you work with, or if it’s not their mother-tongue, do they learn it in school so English materials will work for them?
NO: English is our primary language (of course after colonization by the English), Kiswahili is our national language which we use more in conversation than in written communication. The children are OK with it where there is need to interpret we will manage.
EE: Sounds good. We’ve talked a long time, but I think we’ve covered a lot of ground and I appreciate it. Let’s stay in touch as we develop these ideas and move forward.
NO: Thank you for that sacrifice of remaining awake so early in the morning. More so the fact that you were awake the previous night as well. Good Day!
Thanks so much, Ndagwe!
So what are the next steps?
I thought my talk with Ndagwe went great. It gave us tons of good ideas. But now it’s time to move beyond the talk and get to action. Are you interested in joining in? We’ll get more done as a team.
We need people to:
-Help develop training videos. Video not only works best in Kenya; it works best here, too. If you’re interested in producing some tutorial videos about any aspect of raising rabbits, give me a shout. This could even blossom into a paid position, so e-mail if you’re interested. Ellyn@rabbitsmarties.com
-Donate for cages and stock. Donations would be put into the revolving fund Ndagwe mentioned.
-Be available by e-mail to interact with project leaders, sharing about our methods of rabbit keeping when questions arise. You’d be especially welcomed if you have experience in FFA or 4-H leadership, since Ndagwe’s team is interested in developing something similar.
–Pray for the rabbit project in Kenya to be successful and bless many lives.
If you’re interested in any of these things, or have ideas of your own, please e-mail me at Ellyn@RabbitSmarties.com
Looking forward to hearing from you!