Though the soil of Tharaka-Nithi County, in eastern-central Kenya, is quite fertile, inadequate and unpredictable rainfall makes farming a risky business. Shifts in rainfall patterns caused by climate change are only exacerbating the problem. But an irrigation project started in 1987 brings a regular water supply to 2,000 families (approximately 20,000 people) and has developed into a flourishing fair-trade business and now a cooperative providing loans to almost 500 members.

The Ng’uuru Gakirwe Water Project (NGWP) was started in 1987 by the Diocese of Meru with funding from the Italian government to bring water from the Kithino River near Mount Kenya to an initial group of 134 farmers. The role of project coordinator was given to Andrew Botta, an Italian native who had been living in Nairobi since 1955.

Traditionally the local Tharaka ethnic group, a sub-tribe of the Meru people, were subsistence farmers, growing maize and millet. The original idea was to help the farmers in this drought-prone area grow more food for their families, but in 1991 Andrew encouraged some farmers to start growing carcadé (Hibiscus sabdariffa), whose dried flowers can be used to make a tart, bright-red herbal tea. This led to the second stage of the project, the establishment of Meru Herbs, a commercial venture to produce and market herbal teas to help meet the running costs of the NGWP.

Meru Herbs now buys organically grown herbs and fruit from many farms within the NGWP and processes them to produce a range of products distributed through fair-trade channels around East Africa, to Europe (especially Italy) and even to Japan. The most popular herbal teas are carcadé, lemongrass and chamomile, and over the past two decades the Meru Herbs range has expanded to include jams (using mango, papaya, guava, pineapple, passion fruit, carcadé and lemon), tomato sauces, chili powder and tropical fruit in syrup.

Meru Herbs gives the farmers who belong to the water project the opportunity to sell their produce, improving their income and avoiding middlemen. The project employs 46 local people to maintain the irrigation system and process and package Meru Herbs products, while 20 to 100 local women are employed on a seasonal basis to prepare the fruits and herbs, dry the herbal teas and make the jams and sauces. Organic farming courses are also held for the farmers. All net profits are reinvested back into the two production facilities.

Meru Herbs savings and development groups started in 2005 as a further way to help local farmers, and in 2009 a cooperative, Meru Herbs Rural Sacco Ltd, was officially registered with the Kenyan government. A savings and credit cooperative, it has grown quickly and currently has 459 members who can access much-needed banking services. They now have a safe place to deposit their savings and can benefit from low-interest loans. Meru Herbs Rural Sacco provides different types of loans, like development, school fees, emergency, instant, salary advance and business/farming, and in 2010 paid out 1,950,184 Kenyan shillings ($20,147.00) in loans to members.

The cooperative is improving members’ living standards and their farming and business enterprises, and has ambitious plans for the future: “By 2016 we want to increase members to 1,000, increase share capital to 10 million Kenyan shillings [$103,050.00], computerize Sacco operations and open a front-office services activity,” says chairman Celeste Nyaga.