The weather is hot as Miriam Njambi and her two workers walk through coffee bushes to her banana plantation in Kigumo, Murang’a County.
Armed with a machete and gunny bags, Miriam, a retired teacher, and the two workers are on a mission to harvest bananas for sale.
Not far from the farm waiting for Miriam’s produce is Pauline Mwangi, the director of Pamat Food Limited located in Nairobi. Her firm does value addition on bananas, cassava, sweet potatoes and arrowroots.
Miriam carefully selects several mature green bananas that she is sure will weigh more kilos, translating to more pay, and then asks the two workers to cut them cautiously to avoid damage.
“I have been growing bananas since 2015 after getting tissue culture suckers from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology,” offers Miriam.
Previously, she sold her bananas to middlemen at between Sh150 and Sh350 a bunch. The same bananas would be ripened, and sold at Sh10 each in Thika Town, some 20km away.
But since last year, things changed for the better after she was introduced to Pamat Foods Limited. The start-up has not only provided ready market for her bananas that are harvested twice a month, but has also guaranteed her better returns.
“They buy the bananas in kilos at Sh15 each. So if I have a banana bunch weighing 60kg, I earn Sh900. A middleman will pay Sh250 or Sh300 for the same,” Miriam tells Seeds of Gold as her workers carry the day’s harvest to her compound, where Pauline is ready to weigh them.
Despite her plantation hosting less than 50 plants, on a good harvest, Miriam earns at least Sh10,000, triple what she used to earn from middlemen.
After buying the fruits, Pauline, who sources the green bananas from dozens of farmers in the area, then ferries them to her plant in Nairobi.
At the processor, the bananas are washed and chopped into small pieces, dried for two to three days and then milled into flour under the brand Pamat.
Her products include pure banana, cassava and sweet potato flour and a blend of all the three plus arrowroot and amaranth.
“We pack them in 250g, half a kilo and a kilo pack that go for Sh100 and Sh150 per packet.”
Pauline notes that to get quality bananas, the plant should be properly fed with manure, and enough water, especially during dry season. Most farmers don’t water the crop well. It should also be pruned to avoid overcrowding.
“One plant should only be a mother, daughter and a granddaughter. The variety does not matter for us,” she says.
The farmer should also maintain good hygiene on the farm, watching against fusarium wilt, weevils and moles to end up with good-sized bananas.
“There is no formula for harvesting other than cutting the plant carefully to avoid damage. We do not accept bruised bananas.”
Pauline says she is forced to scout for bananas from specific farmers because many do not meet the standards needed by processors to earn the premium price?
“Banana farming has great potential and the crop is grown across Kenya including in central, western, eastern and Nyanza but farmers are not earning from it as expected because they are not growing the correct crop,” says Pauline.
At Iregi village in Maragwa, Joyce Njogu has a two-acre banana plantation and she harvests a week at least 30 green bunches that weigh 50kg each. She sells each at between Sh150 and Sh300 to brokers.
“If I want a little better prices, I have to wait the produce to ripen, then wake up at 4am so that I can ferry them to Witeithie market and sell them myself. This is a tough task,” says Joyce, noting the ripe bananas go for Sh5 each.
If she could access premium market, she would earn up to Sh90,000 a month from her bananas.
And at Ichagaki village, also in Maragua, Ms Hanna Nyambura earns a mere Sh3, 000 per month from a quarter-acre banana plantation because she harvests 12 bunches of bananas every month, which she sells at an average cost of 250 each.
Agriculture experts say Ms Nyambura’s farm has the potential of producing 250 bunches of bananas weighing about 12, 000 kilogrammes every year.
The two women's situation and that of their colleagues may be alleviated with the entry of GROOTS Kenya, an organisation which works to empower women economically at the rural areas.
The GROOTS Kenya Rural Women Economic Empowerment Project has kicked off a drive to assist the women farmers improve on quality and quantity of their banana produce and link them with markets.
The women in five wards in Murang'a County, have been undergoing training on how to increase production yield, under the project which is
supported by We Effect, where they also learn from their more exposed counterparts such Mrs Mwangi as well as processors.
We Effect is a global organisation that seeks to fight poverty in counties in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Purity Wanjiku, a programmes officer with GROOTS Kenya, an organisation that works with women, says bananas can boost livelihoods if farmers can get better market.
“We are telling farmers to adopt better practices for them to produce good bananas,” she says.
MS Wanjiku who is GROOTS Kenya's Programs officer in Murang’a, says the program is aimed at increasing incomes and livelihoods of banana women farmers through enhanced production, value addition, technology as well as access and linkage to lucrative markets and boost gender equality in agribusiness.
Fridah Githuku, GROOTS Kenya’s executive director, says water scarcity is among challenges affecting quality banana production, but through counties, this can be addressed through digging of boreholes.
"We are seeking to build enterprises along the banana value chain, flour, crisps and even handbags and kiondos and most important, we are advocating for improved services especially water which is scarce in Muranga at the moment,'' Ms Githuku says, citing water as a big problem.
Joseph Mureithi, the Principal of Waruhiu Agricultural Development Centre in Githunguri, Kiambu, says better market will turnaround fortunes of banana farmers.
According to him, an acre can host 500 banana plants that if well tendered, they produce 1,000 bunches a year, each weighing between 80kg to 120kg, which with a good market can earn a farmer Sh1.4 million.