I saw a gap in farm machinery skills, now I run a training school

Friday June 24 2016

The director of Manera farm, Claudia Torres Palao displays one of the tractors used for training new drivers in the farm.

The director of Manera farm, Claudia Torres Palao displays one of the tractors used for training new drivers in the farm in Naivasha. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By FRANCIS MUREITHI
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The eucalyptus trees along the busy Nakuru-Nairobi highway form a beautiful canopy that provide an enchanting environment.

At the end of the canopy, opposite the Delamere Estates, on the right side from Nakuru, an earth road leads to Manera Farm, some 2km from Naivasha town.

A huge gate ushers us into the 600 hectare farm owned by Claudia Torres Palao, a Peruvian, and her husband, Pierluigi Maggioni, an Italian.

Claudia, dressed in a light blue outfit, and a marching orange reflector jacket, is all smiles.

“You are now in Manera Farm,” she says warmly, making us feel at home.

Theirs is perhaps the only private farm in the country that offers vocational training to farm equipment operators.

The farm, which opened its doors to the public in October last year, is slowly becoming a preferred destination for persons seeking to get knowledge in operating farm equipment, among them fresh agriculture graduates, ordinary farmhands and farm owners.

Claudia and her husband have been in Kenya for years.

“I came into the country aged four, and I have been farming for the most of my life,” she offers, noting her husband and herself have more than 30 years’ experience working on commercial farms in Nyeri, Embu, Laikipia and Nakuru counties.

In Nyeri, they were volunteers at the Archdiocese of Nyeri while in Embu they were employed by the Catholic Diocese of Embu working under the Don Bosco project where tomatoes, French beans, pawpaws, mangoes, passion fruits and bananas are planted.

Their last farming venture was at the Naivasha farm growing French beans, baby corn and courgettes for export, but they exited due to destruction of the crops by wild animals that include buffaloes, zebras, hippos and gazelles.

“Having been in commercial farming for more than three decades, we witnessed the damages caused by drivers and realised that one of the major costs on the farm is repairing tractors and other equipment due to poor handling by untrained operators,” says Claudia, who is an agriculture graduate from Reading University in Britain.

AGRICULTURE SCHOOLS IN ITALY

She met her husband at Karemenu School of Agriculture in Nyeri, where he was the principal while she was a teacher.

Most tractor drivers on small and large-scale farms, according to her, start as general labourers before training themselves.

“But this is because the opportunities to train are limited; mostly the places where to train are inaccessible. Currently, there is limited training on tractors because what we have is schools for heavy earthmovers like caterpillars. We saw this gap and decided to turn it into a business.”

To start, they designed a course based on the curriculum of agriculture schools in Italy, where her husband also farmed.

Claudia Torres Palao on one of the tractors that is used for training in her farm in Naivasha.

Claudia Torres Palao on one of the tractors that is used for training in her farm in Naivasha. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“In total, we invested Sh1 million that went on hiring of two tutors, teaching materials and other overhead costs. The National Industrial Training Authority also inspected our farm and we paid the registration fees of Sh12,000,” says Claudia, adding they did not buy machinery for training because they already had it on the farm.

Besides tractors, students are also taught how to operate spray equipment, harrows, planters and hay making machines.

“Our course lasts two to five days and is mainly practical, done on the farm. We use seven tractors and practice on 20 hectares, having leased the rest,” says Claudia, noting they train a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 learners per session, with the programme costing from Sh18,000 to Sh37,000 depending on duration and if one is boarding.

She observes that success on farms that use equipment, whether small or large, largely depends on the workers and their understanding of the animals and equipment they use.

“A good worker who understands the machine they operate will make the most out of it for the longest time possible with minimum breakages.”

REQUIRE SERIOUS UNDERSTANDING

Dr Vitalis Kibiwot Ngelechei, a farm machinery expert from Egerton University, says a farm worker dealing with machines needs specialised knowledge on operation, settings and maintenance.

“It is unfortunate that in this country, farm machinery, including tractors, are viewed as motor vehicles that can be handled by every Tom, Dick and Harry,” laments Dr Kibiwot.

He says that tractors require a serious understanding other than just running the machine like a lorry or any ordinary vehicle on the road.

“When you are doing a planting operation, we recommend speed and maintenance schedules to keep the machine in good shape and this can only be understood by a trained operator.”

Claudia displays a ploughing machine for training in Manera Farm.

Claudia displays a ploughing machine for training in Manera Farm, Naivasha. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

One of the major impacts of poor maintenance is faster depreciation of the machine, which also disrupts planting, harvesting and spraying resulting to poor yields.

So far, according to Claudia, they have trained about 50 people and most of those sending their workers for training are big farms from Naivasha, Naivasha, Nakuru and Meru.

“It is certainly not easy to convince farm owners and other persons on the importance of the training as majority have thrived on cheap and untrained manpower, but the attitude is changing.” She adds they hope to turn the school into a regional training hub for farm machine operators as interest in farming rises.

Points to ponder

A good machine operator should;

  • Be alert while on duty, extra careful to avoid accidents and one must not be rough.
  • Be able to read the machine manual before starting using it and if one is unable to read she or he should seek assistance.
  • He or she must be able to know the timelines of taking the machine for service and constantly check it to detect leaks and other minor defects.
  • Seek assistance on any issue about the machine.