Two for a cause

Sustaining its unique relationship with the community has been a difficult challenge for Magadi Soda. In the circumstances it helps to have Tata Chemicals on its side

Jacqueline Kasisu hides behind a shy smile as she speaks about her ambition to be a lawyer. It will take a lot, but 16-year-old Jacqueline has a better chance than most girls of her age and from her community, the semi-nomadic, livestock-dependent Maasai, to realise her dream.

Jacqueline is one of 650 students at the Il Parakuo Primary School, a picture of resilience and progress that juts out of a hardscrabble landscape. It is about 10km from the township that the Magadi Soda Company runs next to its manufacturing facility, and a million miles from visions of imposing educational edifices. Set up in 1982 with 30 students, the school wages a daily struggle to survive.

Its adversaries are many: lack of resources, shortage of teachers and classrooms, the lackadaisical and sometimes unfriendly attitude of the community towards education — especially of the girl child — the dust storms that are routine in this part of Kenya, security… Its supporters are fewer: a band of dedicated teachers, the government (to a limited extent) and the Magadi Soda Company, which has spread an extensive safety net that delivers sustenance to the communities living around its operations. And this safety net has been broadened and made more substantial following the acquisition of Magadi Soda by Tata Chemicals.

The business logic behind Magadi Soda becoming part of Tata Chemicals is sound, but the two companies also share a common philosophy and enlightened approach to community initiatives. Much like the Tata Chemicals outpost in Mithapur in Gujarat in western India, Magadi is a one-enterprise town. Magadi Soda is everything — the only thing — in an isolated and remote region. Understand that and you can understand the reliance of the locals on the company.

Problems aplenty
At Il Parakuo, Magadi Soda provides water (liquid gold in an area starved of it) and assistance in the building of infrastructure, but the call for more is persistent. The school, which has a dormitory and also functions as a rescue home for girls forced into early marriage, has just 13 teachers and a bare minimum of amenities. “The company is doing a lot and we appreciate it, but we need more help,” says Reuben Kinuthia, the beleaguered head teacher. [Back to top]

The challenges Mr Kinuthia and his colleagues face go beyond imparting an education; they are far from securing funds for a vitally important meal scheme and they have to work overtime to ensure that their wards stay in school. Girls are discouraged from going home for vacations because of the risk that they may not return. Home can, for some of them, mean early marriages or forced sexual encounters with Morans, gangs of Maasai youth recently initiated into manhood. “Say no to sex,” intones Rose Ochong, who is with Magadi Soda’s community development department, to Jacqueline and her friends.

At the Patterson Memorial Secondary School, about 25km from Magadi township, in a dry and shrubby area accessible only by a dirt road, the problems are similar to those at Il Parakuo, including a resource crunch. Founded in 2005 in memory of Brian Patterson, a project director with Magadi Soda who died in a road accident, the 145-pupil school is getting $1.5 million directly from Tata Chemicals to build new classrooms, a boys’ dormitory, a laboratory and teachers’ quarters. Even that’s not sufficient.

The Kenyan government and Magadi Soda contributed to getting Patterson up and running, as did the local community, which conducted cattle auctions and a variety of other events to raise money. “That’s how we make the community feel they are the owners of the school, that Patterson is theirs,” says deputy principal Joseph Wangila. “It gives them an incentive to send, and keep, their children in this school.”

Making the local community an integral part of Magadi Soda’s community development programme was no accident. It has been a truth embedded in the company’s history and at its centre are the Maasai, a pastoral people, tall and lithe, proud and still not one with the ways of the modern world.

The Maasai in Magadi
“The Maasai have a crucial place in the Kenyan ethos; we are an embodiment of Kenya and its traditions,” says Joel Ole (or son of) Sayianka, the government-appointed ‘senior chief ’ of the Maasai in the Magadi location. Mr Sayianka straddles two cultures, the culture of the Maasai (fulfilling the role of chief, raising livestock, wearing the traditional dress of the community and playing a full part in its rituals) and the culture of these times (working out of an office, being part of the corporate setup and speaking in English with sophistication and clarity).

It was always a given, if not stated as such, that the Maasai would use the resources of Magadi as and when they wish (it’s not unusual for a Maasai tribal to walk into the company canteen and help himself to lunch). “When I was growing up my father would tell me that he knew little about the government; Magadi was all about the company,” says Mr Sayianka. [Back to top]

The Maasai had never really chased after jobs in the plant but, by the 1990s, with their livestock declining, incomes falling and droughts becoming more and more frequent, a job with the company started seeming like salvation. The situation came to a head in 1999, when Magadi suffered one of the severest droughts in memory. “That’s when we sat down with the management and asked it to chalk out a plan for the organised uplift of the Maasai,” says Mr Sayianka.

In 2000, Magadi Soda conducted a community and environment impact assessment. The study revealed plenty of fissures. “We had been dealing with the community in a haphazard manner,” says John Kabera, acting manager, human resources. “Issues were tackled as and when they arose, without any overarching framework. We realised that our views were not necessarily the views of the community.”

Magadi Soda organised a meeting of community leaders, elders, women and youth, it talked to tribal chiefs, the local administration and politicians. A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis was done and about 70 segments were identified, among them education, employment, transport, health, water, livelihoods and security.

High expectations
That’s the background to how Magadi Soda came to fix an annual community-support budget, now nearly $2.2 million, and the areas to focus on. Education gets the biggest chunk on this allocation, water the next and then healthcare. “We told the community that Magadi Soda could not cover all these areas on its own,” says Mr Kabera. “There was a role for government, for NGOs and for the community.” Adds Mr Sayianka: “I wouldn’t say all our expectations have been met, but the company has been sympathetic about our requirements.” [Back to top]

Meeting expectations, says Lemarron Kanto, the community development manager at Magadi Soda, has been the “single most demanding challenge” to deal with. “The reasons for the high expectations have to do with tradition and the meagre natural resources in this region,” he says. “With the government not doing enough on human development indices, it sometimes falls upon the company to fill the gaps.”

Given this reality of extensive yet, from the recipient’s perspective, still not satisfactory company help to the community, everybody was apprehensive when the news came through that Tata Chemicals was going to acquire Magadi Soda. The Tata Chemicals management, with then chief executive Prasad Menon leading the effort, went out of its way to explain the group’s outlook on corporate social responsibility.

“They asked some of us to come and see what the company was doing in India,” says Mr Kanto. “They organised a week-long trip for five of us, community leaders and Maasai elders among them, to India. We went to Mumbai and Mithapur [so similar to Magadi in its weather and topography] and we saw, first-hand, all that was happening there. We were impressed, and convinced.”

A hospital, a panacea
“The way the community sees it, these are foreigners exploiting their land and resources, so they should pay the healthcare and education costs,” says Dr Sam Wendo, who completed a course in Birmingham, Britain, before returning to Kenya 22 years back to take up a position with Magadi Hospital. Dr Wendo joins the refrain on resources being scarce, but the hospital he now heads is better off on this count. Its criticality to people in the township as well as those living a lot further away may be one reason for this relatively healthy state of affairs.

Established in 1929, Magadi Hospital has two doctors, including Dr Wendo, 22 support staff, 50 beds and the clean and efficient look and feel of a professionally run operation. There is no other hospital in a 60-km radius, which means that it serves more than just company employees and their families. There is a user charge, but that’s nominal. The community bears about 25 per cent of the costs of running the hospital and Magadi Soda foots the rest of the bill. “Our services are provided whether or not a patient is able to pay,” says Dr Wendo.

The hospital, and Dr Wendo’s, main worries are upper respiratory tract infections, malaria and waterborne diseases. Then there’s the scourge of Aids, the commonest cause of death among adults over the last 20-25 years in much of Africa. “HIV-Aids cases take up 35-40 per cent of the beds in our hospital,” says Dr Wendo. “Death rates from Aids have been falling over the last five years or so after affordable treatment became available. The drugs — supplied mostly by Indian harmaceutical companies — come free from the government and we pass them on.”

This has made a big difference. Earlier many people did not want to be tested even, since there was so little hope, but now they know something can be done. The hospital has a counselling centre and awareness programmes to enlighten people about the disease and the toll it takes. That said, in Magadi the HIV-Aids stigma is still high and getting people to open up and talk about the condition is hard. [Back to top]

Dr Wendo is realistic about the hospital and the work it does. “We could accomplish more if the government saw us as a true partner, with immunisation and family planning projects, for instance,” he says. “Our need is not so much for doctors as for nurses and public health professionals, for outreach initiatives, basically getting healthcare out of the hospital and to where the community needs it most, where they live. We want to focus on the preventive rather than the curative.”

Wars to wage
The curative is Lucy Mbuthia’s sphere of expertise and never-ending endeavour. The principal of Magadi Secondary School, situated in the middle of the township, cuts a determined figure as she explains the battles she has to fight on behalf of her kids and her institution, which has 189 students, nine teachers and a lunch programme that takes hard work to sustain.

Porridge for breakfast, maize and beans for lunch — there doesn’t appear to be much in this plate but in the far reaches of poverty-ravaged Africa it means the difference between starvation and a reasonably full stomach, education and continuing illiteracy. “It is hunger rather than sickness that keeps children here away from school,” says Ms Mbuthia, who grew up in Magadi and remembers a time when there was a Hindu temple where the school stands (this before the Indians left en masse in 1973).

Ms Mbuthia rages against the bad facets of Maasai culture, in particular female circumcision. “Besides the cruelty, it cuts short the girl’s life, because she is then married and starts producing babies when hardly into her teens,” she says. “That’s why the women here look so much older than their age; 25-year-olds who appear to be in their 40s.” There is other villainy afoot, too: the selling of girls to old men, and promiscuity and prostitution that can be linked to poverty and illiteracy.

“I’ve learned that it does not serve much purpose attacking these mores head on,” says Ms Mbuthia. “I’ve learned to blend in with the culture, so I tell the parents and elders to delay circumcision; that delays pregnancies.

You have to steal the children from this culture of suppression. By the time you get through, if you ever do, you are so tired by it all, the effort and this constant banging of your head against the wall.”

“The men here tend to forget, when they make decisions, that there are women in their world,” says Liberata Njioka, Magadi Soda’s feisty corporate communications manager and the first female manager in the company.

Mr Sayianka, the Maasai chief, insists the culture of his people is not entirely backward. “There are positive and negative traits in us; we want to retain the positives and be done with the negatives,” says the man whose father, also a tribal chief, had eight wives and about 50 children (Mr Sayianka is not sure how many exactly). “I have just one wife and three children, including a son who’s studying in Malaysia.”

Advancement and improvement are, of course, not alien to the Maasai, many of whom are entering the mainstream of society as doctors and engineers. “Recently I had one of my former students build a house for her father, something unheard of among the Maasai,” says Ms Mbuthia, “but I feel this generation has to pass before real change can come to the land.”

For that change to arrive, Magadi Soda Company and its parent, Tata Chemicals, will have to remain at the forefront of the movement in this corner of Africa to lift the community and all its constituents. [Back to top]

Once upon a company

The Magadi Soda enterprise owes its existence to a great extent on the building of the railway line from Mombasa to Kampala (from Kenya to Uganda) at the turn of the 20th century, a development that brought many skilled Indians to the African continent, where they would settle and thrive.

MF Hill, in his Magadi: The story of the Magadi Soda Company, first published in 1964, writes of the time: “The railway became the backbone of Kenya’s economy: it brought government and settlers and commerce in its track; and it alone made possible the conversion of the vast natural deposit of alkaline crystals in Lake Magadi into an economic asset.”

Magadi sits at the lowest point in East Africa’s Rift Valley, in arid and harsh environs where pioneering British prospectors found the soda ash that would be the making of the company. Balyney Percival, the hunter of big game, is reported to have said that if he owned a place in hell and an estate in Magadi, he would prefer to live in hell.

Mr Hill writes of the taming of Magadi: “It is the story of a long, arduous and expensive struggle, first to overcome great physical difficulties, and secondly to mould remote Magadi into a self-contained township where men of all races could live and work in reasonable conditions.”

A 90-mile railway line had to be built to connect Magadi with the main line to Mombasa, water had to be brought by a pipeline, also 90 miles long, from the Ngong Hills. Beyond connectivity and water, “there remained an equally formidable array of problems for the engineers and the chemists to solve before an economic measure of output of soda ash could be achieved”.

Magadi lies deep inside lands reserved for the Maasai tribe, first sealed through agreement by the colonial British government in 1911. Mr Hill’s account states that the government went out of its way to protect the interests of the Maasai, frequently “to the disadvantage and to the considerable inconvenience of the Magadi Soda Company”. The granting of leases for the extraction of soda ash from Lake Magadi and its surrounding areas in Maasailand were preceded by prolonged consultations and negotiations.

The expectations the Maasai have of the company are unusually high when compared with any similar community in an entrepreneurial setting. The Maasai consider much of the vast spread of East Africa, where their people have roamed and lived the nomadic life for thousands of years, their ancestral land and the resources therein their own. The way they see it, the Magadi Soda Company operates thanks to their blessing.

The Maasai in and around Magadi looking to the company as a source of employment is a recent phenomenon, but the community has seen its welfare as one of the company’s principal responsibilities. And, as Mr Hill writes, the company has kept its end of the bargain, “being a notably good and generous tenant in Maasailand”.

Magadi is in many ways a microcosm of Kenya, with its many tribes and the tensions bred by loyalties that still struggle to coalesce towards a common idea of nation (as reflected by the recent troubles in the wake of a disputed presidential election, when ethnic clashes left about 1,000 people dead). There are more than 40 tribes in Kenya — the Maasai are among the smallest of these — and all of them are represented in Magadi, without, it should be added, any of the rivalries that wreck the relationship between them elsewhere in the country.

Wrote Mr Hill: “Magadi is an epitome of all the social, racial and tribal problems that perplex and, at times, bedevil Kenya… I have come to the conclusion that great as have been the technical, industrial and commercial achievement, the social achievement has been the greatest of all. The Magadi Soda Company has set Kenya a lead and an example in housing schemes, in social services and amenities and in labour relations which merits the highest praise.”

In the 45 years since MF Hill wrote those lines, the Magadi Soda Company has remained more than true to its legacy, with some help, over the past three years, from Tata Chemicals.