Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Dairying differently in Kenya

Alisa Anderson Published on 07 October 2009

Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles that describes the struggles and experiences of an American dairyman managing a dairy in Kenya.

“We in America don’t realize how far we are in front of the rest of the world. I have yet to work in a country that has farmers that understand agriculture like American farmers,” says dairyman Tom Dobler.



Dobler is part owner of a dairy near Nairobi, Kenya.

Over the years Dobler has traveled all over the world for a nonprofit organization as an agricultural consultant and teacher in less-advanced countries.

“In many other countries education is only theory, and no practical knowledge is exhibited. As I look at animal ag in the U.S. today with all the restrictions and regulations, I think that American farmers will begin a reverse migration to other parts of the world. The opportunities are great if you are willing to sacrifice the good life you enjoy in America,” Dobler says.

Which is what Dobler himself has done. Originally from Colorado, Dobler owned a dairy for many years. In the late 1980s a mix-up at the local feed co-op resulted in some urea in the corn he fed to his cows. Much of his herd was poisoned, and it seriously set his farm back.

“As I struggled to keep my sanity, I read an article relating to world hunger. I had a huge case of self-pity and to this day I believe God set the stage for me to realize I didn’t have it half as bad as I thought,” Dobler says.


The article listed some nonprofit organizations that wanted help fighting world hunger. Dobler sent letters to each one offering to help. Most of the organizations sent requests for money, but the ACDI/VOCA, an organization based in Washington, D.C., replied and asked him to travel to various places and help teach people about agriculture.

Dobler left his farm to his son, and from there he and his wife, Rose, ended up traveling to many countries, from Uganda to England to Kazakhstan. They now manage a dairy in Kenya and are living on the shores of Naivasha Lake.

Dobler has found that managing a Kenyan dairy can be very different. One of the main differences he’s found is labor management.

“With managing employees in the U.S., we pretty much treat them the same as anybody else. But that doesn’t happen here. If you treat them too nice, you’re in trouble in a hurry. They begin to cheat and lie and steal. So you have to be very firm with employees, more so than you would ever dream of being in the U.S.,” Dobler says.

Part of the problem is the fact that the majority of the people in Kenya are very poor. They have 145 employees, 120 for the crops and 25 for the 170-cow dairy. Dobler notes that many of his employees come to work with sandals they made out of the sidewalls of tires.

Many of the employees have almost nothing of their own and rely on the dairy to provide a place to live. They earn 170 Kenya shillings per day, which is just over $2.


The dairy also provides a school for the children. Most of the employees have been involved with agriculture all their lives, but they don’t know how to farm efficiently. They’ve always done everything by hand, and don’t seem to understand why it should be any different.

“Trying to get them to utilize machines and maintain equipment is a huge hurdle,” Dobler says.

Although communication has been a problem, it usually hasn’t been because of a language barrier. All of his supervisors speak English, so although many workers speak Swahili, he always has someone around who can translate. He still plans on learning Swahili in the future.

The real stumbling block in communication is a lack of motivation. When the workers don’t want to do something, they will act like they can’t understand the request in English.

“I don’t know if it is the work ethic or if it is the way that Kenya has been suffering through the last 45 to 50 years of independence. I mean, when you are getting $2.50 a day, how motivated are you going to be? You have to look at it and say, well, what’s the real cause? Are they lazy so they’re only paid $2.50 a day, or did they become lazy because they are only paid $2.50 a day?” Dobler says.

Another difference of dairy management in Kenya is the lack of access to a veterinarian. There are many veterinarians, according to Dobler, but few with any real training. The best vet they can reach does no more for the cows than what Dobler himself can already do.

Theft is a big problem at the dairy. Dobler and his supervisors have to count their hay bales every night, because unless they count them, bales turn up missing. Cattle disappear regularly.

“If a tractor breaks down before we can get it back to the fenced security area, we have to get a guard and build a fire, or we won’t have all of the tractor come morning,” Dobler says.

Dobler says he has come to appreciate what he had in America.

“I have this yearning to drive down a clean highway with orderly traffic some days rather than driving through trash and watching accident after accident because nobody pays any attention to driving safely. I also yearn for such a simple thing as a McDonald’s cheeseburger that won’t give me Montezuma’s revenge. But to see things such as the ability to plant corn any day of the year, harvesting 13 crops of alfalfa a year and the constant exposure to wildlife makes it bearable,” Dobler says.

The Doblers see a lot of wildlife in the area. During the day they can go down to a nearby river and see over 100 hippos at any one time. During the dry season, the hippos will come up out of the river in the evenings to graze – sometimes on crops and lawns.

Dobler tells of seeing a giraffe cross the road in front of him late one night. Another time he had to take his tractor and rescue a lady who had been chased up into a macadamia nut tree by a water buffalo. Besides the wildlife, Dobler sees other little things that keep him going.

“I’ll be pulling my hair out with some equipment, and it’s the middle of the afternoon. They’ll turn the school out and here come all these little kids doddling along. Everybody knows in English, ‘How are you?’ And when they get close enough, each one of them will say, ‘How are you?’ And you respond to them, and oh, they get the biggest smiles on their faces, just dimples from one ear to the other,” Dobler says.

Despite all of their struggles, the Doblers will tell you that working in Kenya is worth it.

“This is more than a job. It is a very rewarding experience beyond the financial reward,” Dobler says. PD