Nestled behind the lush Limuru tea estates, deep in Kiambu County lies Lari. The cool breeze from the giant Aberdare slaps our faces as we enter the serene ambience of Kagaa, a little known village in Lari teeming with lush farms.
William Gitau, 33, is tending to beautiful rosemary plant when we arrive. On his farm in small portions are also oregano, chia, thyme, fennel, tree tomatoes, radish, marjoram, stevia, carrots, broccoli, pepino melons and parsley.
The crops, which Gitau grows with 36 other members of his group on small farms spread across the village, are farmed organically. They later find their way to the organic market in Nairobi while others are bought by locals.
Gitau, who is the director and co-founder of Healthy Living Tech-Agri-Campaign (Helitech), a community youth group started last year, says their agribusiness is a response to rising demand for healthy foods.
The farms belong to their parents. In total, Helitech members grow the crops on 27 gardens (some 30 by 10m), each picking what they can farm best.
So how did they start, and how did they decide organic model was the way to go?
“We were originally two. James Ng’ang’a and I started Helitech in March 2015 with only two rabbits. Then there was this craze on healthy living and we said: here is a niche,” says Gitau, a 2011 University of Urbaniana, Rome, Bachelor of Philosophy graduate.
Slowly, the two sold the idea to other like-minded youths, leading to the formation of the group. New members pay Sh5,000 registration fees.
“We agreed to grow the herbs and vegetables individually because we had a market in Nairobi.”
To grow the business, the youths approached Martin Kuria, the Lari sub-county Youth Fund co-ordinator.
“Through him, we learned a lot on financial literacy, managing our agribusiness and farming organically. Courtesy of the Fund, we exhibited our products at several agricultural forums, including the shows,” says Gitau, adding that last January they borrowed Sh50,000 from the Fund to conduct soil tests on their farms.
The group makes its own organic pesticides and manure using rabbit droppings and urine, wild sunflower (tithonia diversifolia) and vermi-compost (from worms), which they use on their farms and also sell.
“To make liquid organic manure, we harvest rabbit urine, crash tithonia plant and Mexican marigold stems and leaves and add to the mixture.
It is then fermented for seven days but the longer it stays, the better. The solution is then sieved and packed in one litre bottles.
To use, we mix with the water in a ratio of 1:5,” explains Gitau, adding the solution is used both as liquid manure and pesticide and is sold at Sh200 for a litre.
He has more than 50 rabbits, which he sells at Sh600 each.
The group has a demonstration farm where members are trained on how to grow vegetables, enabling them to establish and take care of their gardens.
Besides making liquid fertiliser, which they pack and sell in one litre containers, the group also make pepino melon juice.
Juice from the fruit is extracted into a container after which it is blended with bananas and herbs such as mint and stevia to add flavour. It is then packed in 250ml tumblers and sold locally at Sh50. However a litre of the same goes for Sh 250.
George Muturi, 22, a member of the group, who rears red worms for vermiculture, says they make good money from their sales.
Muturi grows vegetables, herbs and spices on his parents’ garden, but his main venture is vermiculture, which involves using red earthworms to make liquid fertiliser.
“I start the process by collecting cow dung or rabbit droppings. Then I add some soil on the mixture to create a bed where I put the worms. I then sprinkle water on the bed and cover it using grass and leaves.
The worms will feed on the dung and leaves and excrete the fertiliser that we pack and sell,” says Muturi, who was trained on the venture for three days by the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, where he also bought 15kg of worms to start off with.
According to Muturi, the worms multiply at 50 per cent per month and he now gets at least 10 litres of fertiliser in a week.
A litres goes at Sh200 while a kilo of the red worms at Sh1,500.
“We normally sell our produce as a group. The owner of the garden from where we harvested the produce gets 70 per cent of the proceeds and the remaining 30 per cent goes to the group members, because we help each other in tending to our farms,” says Muturi, who adds he is saving cash from the venture to fund his college education.
They also harvest, dry and grind stinging nettle plant using mortar and pestle and package it.
The powder is mixed with tea, just like ginger. "We package it in different packs that include 500g,” says Gitau.
"For the vegetables, we harvest and take them to the Organic Farmers Market in Karen. We sell processed Sage, Chia and Marjoram at Sh3,000 per kilo while dried vegetables, carrots, bananas and stinging nettles, go for up to Sh250 per kilo." He adds
In their first financial year, according to Gitau, the group made profits of up to Sh180,000 from the sale of what they produced. They make sales of up to Sh20,000 each Saturday at the Karen market.
In the next five years, they hope to have increased their value addition projects so that they can supply their products to local supermarkets. They are also eyeing the export market once they secure the required documents to export herbs and spice.
Prof Mathew Dida, a plant breeder from Maseno University’s School of Agriculture, advises that organic farming is viable especially in small portions.
“Organic farming is more applicable and normally successful on small parcels like with kitchen gardening.”
Ken Kigunda, an official from the Youth Enterprise Development Fund terms Helitech a model of success for other youths.
“We are so proud of Helitec and we shall keep supporting the group and similar ones across the country.”
Additional reporting by Leopold Obi