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Delivering local solutions to the drought crisis

Find out why Kris Schroeder wants to create a uniquely Kenyan pizza.

Joseph Nzomo and Kris Schroeder tend to a drought-resistant cassava crop that can help famers re-establish their livelihoods. Photos: Australian Red Cross / Stephen Warui

Innovative ideas are needed to help rural communities in Kenya restore their livelihoods after a crippling cycle of drought and flood.

Kris Schroeder wants to create a uniquely Kenyan pizza.

It seems like a strange ambition for someone in a country experiencing the world's greatest food crisis, but it's closely connected to eastern Kenya's prospects of recovery.

Kris is an Australian Volunteer for International Development, working at the Machakos branch of Kenya Red Cross Society to help engage and retain volunteers from local communities.

Local Red Cross volunteers are instrumental in delivering emergency relief assistance in Machakos and other parts of the lower eastern region. A repeated pattern of crippling droughts followed by devastating floods has resulted in total crop failure. The droughts were followed by an aflotoxin infestation that wasted the remaining produce.

Branch coordinator Joe Mbalu says that 61% of the community is now living in poverty. Red Cross volunteers have distributed food and crop seeds to over 79,000 people in Mwala alone, one of six electoral areas in the Machakos district.

Kris has discovered that food distribution can be a highly politicised issue.

"Maize was introduced to Kenya by the Portuguese and propagated by British settlers. Farmers prefer it because it can grow quickly and have adopted it as an 'advanced man's crop'. But maize cannot survive the current drought conditions. Whereas cassava is an indigenous crop that's designed to withstand the environment, but it takes 7-8 months to mature and it's seen as 'poor man's food'. Farmers are suspicious when we hand out cassava seeds."

To encourage farmers to grow cassava, Red Cross is experimenting with cassava recipes to increase its market value. Cassava bread, chapattis and cakes are already being produced, and a wood-fired pizza delivery service is next on the list. "We purchase cassava from the local farmers, use it as the pizza base, then add local toppings to create a uniquely Kenyan pizza," says Kris.

"The pizza idea is about promoting a taste for cassava, boosting the income-generating prospects of our existing canteen and tapping into the prospects of a fast-urbanising area," adds Joe Mbalu. "Pizzas were once only available in Nairobi, 60km away, but our community will be eating pizza in the next two weeks."

The Machakos branch, supported by logistics officer Brian Asande, finance officer Rabekah, blood donations coordinator Toon and first aid officer Gideon, is constantly looking for new ways to strengthen its operations.

"Our plan is to be self sustaining on all operational costs, an agent of positive change towards sustainable cottage industries and to improve food security," Joe explains.

One of Joe's first tasks for Kris was to create Excel databases to coordinate the distribution of food aid. "Previously we were using handwritten lists supplied by the community. It's very difficult to coordinate effective and fair distribution of food when you're working off a handful of handwritten notes! Now that the volunteers are entering records into a database, we can eliminate duplicates and order lists by ID number, village or location."

Kris sometimes finds himself having to explain to locals why he is in Kenya, a task that's growing easier as he picks up Swahili and Kikamba. "People want to assert their own identity so they're sometimes suspicious of the motives of westerners. You need to communicate your intentions - not to change the way they do things, but to support them in the way they want to do things.

"My experience of Kenyans, how willing they are to work hard and smile under even the most trying circumstances, makes me want to work harder with them."