The thought of starting a ‘side hustle’ while working full-time is always alluring, with farming being a top choice for many.
The plan is normally to put in extra hours and stabilise the business in the shortest time possible so that by the time one quits full-time employment, they have moved the venture beyond the incubation stage.
This mode of operation popularly known as ‘telephone farming’, is very challenging and sometimes the returns on investments are minimal. I am one of those people farming over the phone.
I literary run my poultry farms in Busia and Nairobi via my mobile phone, giving instructions through SMS and calls. It is over a year since I started, and one of the rules I have learnt is that with telephone farming, always trust, but verify.
You see, sometime in July last year, I transferred 104 three-week-old chicks from Nairobi to my farm in Busia and remained with close to 1,000 in my city farm in Njiru.
For the Busia venture, I wanted to see how my poultry business could work in a rural setting. The idea was to use the investment to teach other farmers how to run poultry as a business.
For two months, the birds did well until I received reports that a bush baby had mauled about 40 in two weeks (I recounted the story in this column).
I managed to defeat the predator and assumed over 60 per cent of the flock was alive. However, when I visited some months later and did a stock count, I found there were only 44 birds left.
“What happened to the chickens?” I asked Geoffrey, the worker. “They died of a disease I do not know.”
“How come you didn’t inform me every time I called?” I pressed.
“I informed you,” he retorted. Of course, he hadn’t. When I insisted to know what happened, he changed the story and said he informed Wilson, the other worker, who I had assigned different duties. When I asked Wilson, he denied.
I was very angry because my 20 birds had disappeared into thin air, without trace.
I didn’t suspect foul play at first, since Geoffrey was a dedicated worker and a very religious man. His main problem, however, was that he was very forgetful sometimes.
My trouble did not end there though. There were no eggs despite the fact that I had been sending money for feeds every two weeks.
Luckily for me, because of its proximity, I did not suffer similar fate with my Nairobi venture, where I keep over 500 birds, although I also experienced decline in egg production and theft of feeds.
Faced with the challenges, I decided to come up with new measures to make my telephone farming ventures work.
One thing that I did after doing some research was to schedule daily telephone updates with the workers.
During our conversations, I normally take notes and record in my diary. I am now very specific about what I talk about and I have developed a checklist of agenda items that I tick against.
Usually, I start with the general feedback about the farm, I then enquire about any signs of diseases or deaths from illnesses or predators. I, thereafter, ask about any problems with the housing like leaking roofs or broken doors.
I then ask about water and feeding schedules, including the number of feeders and drinkers in use and about the number of eggs laid.
I further ensure that I ask about the feeds in stock and the next date of purchase. I don’t forget to talk about the next date for changing the saw dust. Thereafter, I go through the checklist with the worker to confirm if it reflects our conversation. I then sign, date and file.
Another thing I have found useful is to hire a trusted and qualified manager to oversee the day-to-today farm management for my Nairobi farm. Instead of getting updates from the workers, I get from the manager Cleophas. He even takes the initiative to call and give daily progress reports. He ensures that records are updated and he emails written progress reports to me, including those of sales, and earns a commission.
The employment on commission has put my costs down since I do not pay him a monthly salary and the more he sells, the more he gets.
I then visit the Nairobi farm every Saturday, without fail. I have learnt that no amount of instructions over the phone can replace my long-term vision of how I want to grow my agribusiness.
Recently when I visited, I noticed that the bags containing the chicken feeds were stacked on the floor. When I asked to examine the spot where they were placed, I noticed that although the floor was dry, some wetness had started sipping.
Had I not taken immediate action to have the feeds dried in the sun, I would be dealing with hundreds of birds dying from aflatoxin poisoning.
Aflatoxin is a harmful substance made by mold that forms in poorly stored grains. Consuming foods contaminated with aflatoxin can be fatal to the birds.
Another lesson I have picked is that when doing telephone farming, and you find that despite constant prodding, you are not getting desired results, don’t wait too long to make the necessary changes. Geoffrey, the worker in Busia, had to go.
I turned the birds to free-range to reduce the cost of feeds. You see, I was buying a 50kg bag of mash for Sh2,700 and the bill exceeded Sh45,000, yet there was nothing to show for it.
With free-ranging, I have eliminated the cost and a relative looks after the birds although I am yet reap anything from them.
But I am happy to say that egg production has gone up in my Nairobi farm following the measures I took because I am now getting up to 120 eggs in a day in one of the batches of about a similar number of birds. Meanwhile, if all goes well, I will install CCTV cameras on the farm to enable me monitor everything going on.