Little grown crop with big returns

Friday February 5 2016

Grace Bwogi's farm in Mpigi, Uganda. She grows

Grace Bwogi's farm in Mpigi, Uganda. She grows ginger. PHOTO | JOSEPH MACHARIA 

By JOSEPH MACHARIA
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The underground rhizome crop, yellow, white or red in colour, is normally covered by a brownish skin that may either be thick or thin depending on the variety.

Its taste, when cooked, is aromatic, pungent and hot. Its consumption may vary from being used as fresh, dried powdered or even as a juice or oil.

Its huge health benefits make it popular in many homes and restaurants. This is ginger, which is rocking farms in Uganda, attracting the discerning youthful Ugandans to the farm as demand for the produce grows across East Africa.

Some 70km West of Ugandan capital, Kampala, Grace Bwogi’s farm in Mpigi District is full of the crop. Grace is one of the many Ugandans who have leased land to grow ginger.

Botanically known as Zingiber officinale, the crop does well in a tropical climate with hot and wet seasons.

The tech-savvy holder of a Masters degree in Social Sector Planning and Management relied on the internet to learn more about ginger farming before taking the plunge.

“Although I am a goat farmer at my home village in Mbarara, I opted to diversify into ginger farming and leased three acres in Mpigi District,” she tells Seeds of Gold on her farm.

To start, she planted 14 bags of seeds weighing 120kg each on the three acres. “I then applied 120 sacks of coffee husks for mulching and for improvement of soil aeration,” she says and adds, “The manure enables water to penetrate the soil better. Luckily here in Mpigi, there is enough rain which saves on water costs.”

To reap maximum benefits, she was advised to plant the local variety known as landrace or nganda, which is more drought-resistant.

Grace says the demand for ginger across the region is too huge to be met at the current production capacity. She harvests an average of 300 bags of ginger, which in a good season fetch Sh26,000 each (USh884,000) each.

OUTPUT IS PREDICTABLE

“That was the lowest price a bag was fetching this season. The increase in price is occasioned by the demand in countries such as Algeria.”

Her love for ginger is evident by the ease with which she talks about the plant. “The crop is easy to tend and it is not seriously affected by the vagaries of weather. So the output is predictable.”

Ginger is one of the crops that grow well in partial to full shade places. Little bits of the ginger root can be removed while it continues to grow. “A little piece of ginger goes a long way, when cooking, brewing tea or when used as herbal remedy to cure colds.”

Grace says some of her clients are from Algeria, who visit so that she can show them how to grow organic ginger for their local markets.

She also organises trainings at her farm, including to interested farmers from Kenya. Traders from Kenya too flock her farm to buy the produce. “I will soon be coming to Kenya to see those who are starting ginger farming. They can’t go wrong.”

Ginger is propagated through rhizome fingers which are separated into sets of 2.5cm, and take 8-10 months to mature. The sets with visible eyes should be pre-germinated before planting.

“This is done by covering with moist organic layer of damp saw dust. It’s recommended to plant sets on ridges of 25-30cm apart, 15-30cm within rows and at a depth of 5-10 cm. With sufficient water, the shoots start appearing after 10-15 days and will continue over a period of four to eight weeks.

The leaves turn yellow and start to lodge. Harvesting is done when plants are fully mature but depending on the market, harvesting can be done before full maturity.

Wash the fresh ginger rhizomes immediately after harvest and air dry it in shade for one to two days to partially heal wounds prior to packaging and storage.

Many farmers in Kenya lack information on ginger farming, the reason why the crop is rarely grown in the country, despite a huge market. Lack of quality seeds is also a major challenge for ginger farming in the country.

David Wanjala, the Kwale Director of Agriculture, says ginger is mainly grown on a limited scale in the Coastal lowlands of Kwale, Eastern region and Mt Elgon.

Most of the ginger consumed in Kenya is sourced from Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa and India.

Since ginger is tolerant to a wide range of climatic conditions, there is opportunity to grow the crop in Western Kenya, mainly in counties bordering the Lake Victoria.

“Ginger requires a tropical climate with a heavy rain period, which is followed by a hot dry spell. It requires 1,000-2,000mm of rainfall annually preferably in coastal lowlands at an altitude of 1,500m above sea level.”

The crop does well in fertile, well-drained loamy soils with a pH of 4.5-6.5. It’s advisable to prepare the land early enough before planting.

Ginger crop requires mildly acidic soils for healthy growth and rhizome production.

The soil pH should be between 5.5 to 6.5. Too high or too low pH interferes with growth. However, you can lower the soil pH by applying compost manure, or increase by applying calcium carbonate to achieve optimal pH.

The soil should be free of pests like root knot nematodes or diseases. When the top of the plant begins to decay, this is a sign of lack of calcium in the soil.

Since ginger develops under the soil, adequate soil coverage is required to protect the rhizomes.

Ginger can be harvested and sold as raw, dry or processed, where it is used as medicine or spice.