Francis Odoyo sifts through rows of shoulder-high tomato plants, picking ripened fruits dangling off the trusses.
Sweat shines on his face, and he repeatedly wipes it with a piece of cloth before resuming the task.
It is about 8am and the 26-year-old must harvest several crates of tomatoes by 10 o’clock, otherwise he will let down his new clients, mainly the mama mbogas (women selling vegetables).
Having had a nasty experience in the hands of brokers stationed at the local markets in Rongo, Migori County, where he farms, Odoyo decided to change strategy.
According to him, he would take his produce to the market but could not sell directly to the traders dealing with consumers. The practice is that the brokers buy from farmers, then sell to the market women.
“They would buy from me and other farmers after colluding amongst themselves to lower prices. Sometimes I ended up selling a crate for as little as Sh1,800 and they would then sell at triple the price.
I did it twice and gave up,” says Odoyo, noting enquiries revealed that is the standard practice in markets across the country, especially for the highly-valued produce like tomatoes.
He recounts that the brokers have perfected the practice because they know too well that tomatoes are perishable.
BOYCOTT BUYING FROM FARMERS
“They boycott buying from farmers at the market and won’t allow you to sell directly to traders. I scouted for mama mbogas and asked them to come and buy at Sh50 a kilo from the farm directly. This has paid off,” says the acquisition officer at Chase Bank, Narok, who farms on family land and started harvesting weekly two months ago.
“Tomatoes are profitable. Each plant offers at least 10kg a season, which for me with my 1,000 plants translates to 10,000kg in total, so even if I sell a kilo at Sh50, I’ll still be making some profit,” he adds.
Odoyo owns a 8 by 3m wooden greenhouse, a project he started in February with Sh180,000 from his savings.
The capital catered for the greenhouse structure, drip irrigation kits, water tank with 1,000 litres capacity, electric water pump, 1,500 tomato seeds and agronomic services for one planting season.
“I started growing tomatoes after realising that those consumed in Rongo town and environs are sourced from as far as Narok. I approached a Kisumu-based greenhouse dealer who sold me the greenhouse and fixed it,” explains Odoyo, a 2013 alumnus of Maasai Mara University where he studied Communication and Public Relations.
The farmer has planted tomatoes on beds in neatly arranged rows with drip irrigation pipes running along.
“Water is not a problem, we have a borehole at our home. What I needed was only a pump,” says Odoyo, who has so far raked in Sh70,000 from the crop.
He has employed a farmhand and his wife helps him look after the farm while he is away.
GOVERNMENT POLICIES PROTECTING FARMERS
Failing to done a soil test before embarking on the venture will, however, be the farmer’s biggest regret, and he has indeed learned his lessons the hard way after several plants were hit by bacterial wilt just when they were beginning to flower.
Bacterial wilt has no known treatment but can only be controlled by uprooting the affected plants and treating the soil through solarisation (burning).
Haggai Oduori, an Assistant Research Fellow at the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, Egerton University, points out that there are government policies aimed at protecting farmers at the market against opportunistic brokers.
However, weak enforcement remains the boon for the middlemen.
“There is a lacuna such that there is no legal basis for the market officers to take action on the middlemen. The market officers lack powers to prosecute,” explains Oduori, while advising farmers to form co-operative unions to make them a formidable force.
Dennis Ongech, an agronomist at Hortitechno Produce and Services, observes that bacterial wilt is a major threat to farmers, especially, in the western part of the country.
“The moment you see your crops wilting at the tip even when there is enough water, know that they are under attack by the wilt. The affected plants must be uprooted and properly disposed after which the soil is treated,” Ongech says, advising farmers to plant tomatoes in beds and use drip irrigation system so that in case one bed is attacked, the disease cannot spread to other beds.
Get it fast
A Quick crop
- Good tomato farmers grow crops with the season in mind.
- If you grow the crop when the market is saturated, you will definitely make losses. The March to May season is one of the best.
- Tomato is a ‘quick crop’ that can earn a farmer huge income as long as he has good quality water for irrigation.
- Farmers should use preventive sprays that can keep fungal and bacterial pests at bay instead of waiting for the crops to be attacked then they act.
- Bacterial wilt, caused by a bacteria called Pseudomonas solanacearum is one of the biggest enemies of the crop.
- The disease is characterised by rapid wilting of the plant and when the stem is cut across, slimy substance oozes out and the pith may be dark or water soaked in appearance.
- The pathogen is soil borne, therefore, it stays on the farm, including in greenhouse.
One solution is to practice hygiene in the greenhouse.