Meet Kenyan Family Reaping Big From Traditional Vegetables in US

  • Henrietta Isaboke (Middle) and her family with a representative of World Farmers Program.
    Henrietta Isaboke (Middle) and her family with a representative of World Farmers Program.
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    Henrietta Isaboke
  • Agriculture is a lucrative venture to undertake in the country but few have taken on the income-generating activity beyond the African borders.

    For Henrietta Moraa Isaboke, who has lived in the US for 19 years, farming was an activity like many she had not foreseen herself undertaking that turned out to be the family's pride.

    Speaking to Kenyans.co.ke, the farmer who specialises in traditional vegetables like Managu for Kenyans living in the US, explained that it is a fullfilling venture which resulted in immense gains for the family.

    Henrietta during a demonstration on her farm
    Henrietta Isaboke during a demonstration on her farm
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    Here is her story:

    1. What made you move to the United States?

    My father obtained a green card in 2000, I was 13 at the time so I didn’t have a choice of whether I was moving or staying. I have lived in the US for 19 years. 

    2. Why and when did you decide to take up farming? 

    Farming was not something that I ever pictured myself embarking on especially in the US, however in 2006 my mother came across an opportunity to start a small kitchen garden. She used to grow small things that were readily available here like collard greens, kale (Sukuma wiki), Swiss chard (spinach) and tomatoes. She did this for a few years and as time went on she increased the amount of land she was planting on. 

    Soon after she was able to provide vegetables for families and friends that were African especially Kenyan who lived in our state and some from surrounding states like New Hampshire. The main reason for starting farming for my mom was so we could have some fresh vegetables from back home here in the US. 

    Prior to this, we were relying on other Kenyans that were coming to visit to bring us some dried vegetable and some of the foods that we love. My main reason for venturing into farming was to help my mother. From there, a business opportunity presented itself and once I started there was no turning back.

    3. What is the acreage of your farm and what do you grow? 

    We have just over 1 acre of land at the moment. We grow managu, chinsaga, kunde, mchicha (both green and red ) mrenda, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, peas, pumpkins, beans, broccoli, tomatoes, Jilo (Brazilian eggplant) and maize. 

    Some of the traditional vegetables Henrietta grows on her farm.
    Traditional vegetables, including skuma wiki growing in a farm.
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    4. How was your farming venture received by the American market?

    It wasn’t hard getting customers for our traditional vegetables. I would just go outside a Kenyan church and after their Sunday services they would buy the vegetables. 98% of the time all the farm produce I had would sell out failing to meet demand. 

    This is possible because of an organisation called World Farmers, who support immigrant and refugee farmers in the US with access to land and market.

    The specific program is known as the Flats Mentor Farm Program, and they have been great in finding the market for our products in grocery stores and corner stores. We usually sell to World Farmers wholesale and they distribute to buyers throughout Massachusetts. This way, we do not have to individually venture into the American wholesale market. 

    5. How does farming in the US compare to farming in Kenya?

    I say farming is farming no matter which part of the world you are in. Some differences between American farming and Kenyan farming is the resources available. In the US, there is education and support for those that need it.

    The soil here is also richer. I do not know if it is because of fewer years being tilled, but there is definitely a difference in the yield. 

    Henrietta Isaboke tending to her farm in the US.
    Henrietta Isaboke tending to her farm in the US.
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    6. What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your venture? 

    Some challenges encountered include other farmers planting the same crops as me and targeting my customers, however that’s nothing new when it comes to business. 

    Also planting in such large scale is difficult due to time constraints without the proper machinery. Man and woman power is not enough with a Jembe in most cases.

    7. How much do you earn from the farm on a yearly basis? 

    To be honest it all really depends on the year. The thing about farming is your ultimate boss is the weather. We only plant 5-6 months because of the changing seasons. 

    We do have a High Tunnel (greenhouse), which allows us to extend the season a little. As for how much we make let’s just say it’s enough to keep me going back year after year. 

    Henrietta Isaboke (back) on her farm in the US
    Henrietta Isaboke (back) on her farm in the US
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    8. What else do you do in addition to farming?

    I work two full-time jobs; one during the night working with elderly individuals in an assisted living facility. I also work as a therapeutic aid for autistic individuals in a day program. I am also a graduate student at the Southern New Hampshire University pursuing my Master's in Public health.

    My most important job is raising my two beautiful daughters Avah (almost 9 years old) and Nyaboke (2). 

    9. What are future plans for the farm and yourself?

    I would love to expand my farming venture so I can be able to have enough crops to meet the demand and be able to supply across the US and Canada. I am hoping to one day own my own farm and of course like most Kenyans in the diaspora I hope to one day be able to go back home and continue my farming. With everything I am learning and continue to learn, I think farming would be the best thing to retire to. 

    10. With the Covid-19 pandemic, how have you adapted your business to stay profitable?

    Covid-19 didn’t affect my market much because we are considered essential farmers so we can keep working  and even with the pandemic people still need to eat. One thing I can say that has helped us stay afloat is that World Farmers has been able to buy more crops from farmers like myself and put them into Food Boxes distributed free of charge to hungry families who have been affected by the pandemic. 

    World Farmers has been able to supply over 17,000 boxes of free produce to communities in Massachusetts at no cost. Meaning Immigrant farmers are feeding America and that is a great feeling that we have and the pride of our farming. 

    A delivery of a traditional vegetable 'sagaa' from Henrietta's farm in the US
    A delivery of a traditional vegetable 'sagaa' from Henrietta's farm in the US
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    Henrietta Isaboke

    11. What would you advise a person looking to start farming in the US? 

    The best advice I can give to anybody looking to start farming is to do research in their area, there are so many resources available to farmers if they take the time to look around.

    Also the best thing to do is just to start. We have many organizations that host community farms or gardens across America for very low cost and that would be a great place for anybody and everybody to start.

    For those that own their own homes I would say turn your flower gardens into vegetable gardens there is nothing better than eating food that you grow yourself, especially now that one never knows what chemicals are put in the foods we eat.

    A family Affair...

    I would like to say that this is not a solo job, farming for us is a family venture without my mother Veronicah Nyaigoti my father Henry Makori Brother Entricus, who was always in the farm many hours prepping the land, sisters Valerie and Immaculate who lend a hand when possible and my cousin Violet Guto, we would not be able to do what we do. 

    The family is involved in taking care of the farm in the US
    The family is involved in taking care of the farm in the US
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    The mother of two fulfills online orders for those in the US through her facebook page Henrietta Moraa Isaboke and also has a business page MamaLexavah_Kitchen.