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Hardy aloe vera lifts hopes in arid region

Friday July 05 2019
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Samuel Musili inspects aloe vera seedlings in his farm in Kathonzweni, Makueni County. He has more than 7,000 aloe vera plants grown on about two acres in the farm. PHOTO | BRIAN OKINDA | NMG

By BRIAN OKINDA

Samuel Musili, a farmer in Kathonzweni, Makueni County, is a nonconformist. As other farmers in the region struggle to grow maize, pigeon peas and beans, Musili farms aloe vera.

It all began in 2006 when he visited Baringo and saw the aloe plants thriving in the semi-arid region.

With Kathonzweni being a dry area like Baringo, Musili returned home with aloe suckers and planted them on his farm that then only hosted mangoes, moringa and pigeon peas.

That marked his dalliance with the plant that is now making a comeback in the county, years after residents abandoned it because it did not have a proper market.

Musili, a pastor, has more than 7,000 plants, (5,000 mature) on about two acres. Until recently, he made some herbal medicine or crushed and dried the flower to make aloe tea and sold at the local market, but things changed after a Nairobi-based aloe vera outlet started to buy the produce.

“We are selling aloe vera leaves at Sh30 a kilo to Herbal Garden, which processes juice,” says Wilmot Mbaka, another farmer who has 4,000 plants, having started with 100 suckers. Besides selling the leaves, he sells aloe vera sprouts for planting to fellow farmers, each costing Sh20.

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Mbaka notes that the plant has a good commercial value as one mature leaf weighs one-and-a-half kilos. With each plant offering about eight leaves, a farmer earns handsomely from a single plant every harvest time.

Gerishon Nzuva, who retired after serving as a senior deputy-director of agriculture, says aloe vera’s many uses have remained largely unknown for years.

“The plant is versatile. As an ingredient, you can use it with virtually any health product.”

He indicates that there are about 300 different varieties of aloe vera in the country, and each, has its unique uses, ranging from making juices, soap, detergents, shampoo, herbal remedies, food supplement and flavouring, to aloe vera herbal tea and jelly oils.

The Aloe barbadensis is the most commonly cultivated variety of the plant in the country, he says.

The crop, according to him, does well in arid and semi-arid conditions with rainfall of about 800mm and tends to thrive in low altitude areas.

ALOE VERA HAS MANY USES

“It is an easy plant to grow as it requires minimal care and attention during its growing period. One has to prepare the land, ensuring the soil is sandy loam for good drainage as the plant does not require much water. There should be minimal fertiliser application in the soil, as well,” he says.

The land is then populated with the plant’s suckers, spaced at 3 by 3 feet.

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Women harvest mature aloe vera at Samuel Musili's farm in Makueni. The plant which matures after 18 to 24 months should preferably be harvested when there is some rain as then, the aloe vera would have sucked in more water and hence a higher gel content in its leaves. PHOTO | BRIAN OKINDA | NMG

Although it can also be grown from seeds, suckers are the most ideal since they develop faster. An acre of land should accommodate 4,000 plants.

And since the aloe vera is adapted to dry, rock-strewn and exposed areas with generous amounts of sunlight and heat, a farmer should ensure that conditions, to an extent similar to these, are available to the plant as it grows, offers Nzuva.

“As a farmer cultivating aloe vera, ensure that you very well understand your target market before picking the variety of the plant to cultivate. Different varieties are used to make products. Without the right knowledge, you could end up cultivating a variety used in soap and shampoo production and believe that you will be able to supply it to a juice processor,” Nzuva advises.

The plant matures after 18 to 24 months and should preferably be harvested when there is some rain as then, the aloe vera would have sucked in more water and hence a higher gel content in its leaves.

“The farmer should harvest about eight leaves from each plant, starting with the lowest. And harvesting is done three to four times per year, as the plant continues to grow,” says Nzuva.

Dr Dennis Tongoi, a director at Herbal Garden, says they require at least 10 tonnes of aloe vera leaves every week for making of aloe juice and other products.

He says aloe juice is used in preventing stomach ulcers, controlling and stabilising blood sugar levels, providing vitamins, treating gum inflammations and constipation, keeping one hydrated and helps in digestion.

Nzuva, who also works as an official of the Agriculture Society of Kenya and grows aloe vera in Kilome, Makueni County, advises that the plant should preferably be grown for eight years, after which it can be deracinated and new suckers planted.

This is because just like any other plant, productivity sometimes tends to wane as crops age.

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