With eyes fixed on the okra flowers, Caroline Mutindi walks from one plant to another scouting for pests and signs of diseases.
The crop is on part of her sprawling nine-acre farm overlooking Mukuanima Hill on the border of Kitui and Makueni counties. The farm also hosts sukuma wiki (collard greens) and chilli, which she farms all the year round
“This farm has been my office for over a year now,” says Caroline, a banker who quit her job last July to concentrate on farming. “So far, so good. The risk was worth it.”
Her typical day involves supervising dozens of workers she hires as they plant, weed and harvest the various crops.
“Okra is my favourite crop because it matures in 45 days and not many people grow it. It sits on three acres,” says Caroline, who sells her produce to groceries in Mutomo, Ikutha, Kibwezi and Makindu townships.
She also sells the flowering plant loved for its edible seed pods twice a week to two clients in Nairobi at between Sh40 and Sh50 per kilo. The produce fetches more during the dry spell.
Chilli, on the other hand, which sits on three acres of the leased farm at Sh15,000 per acre annually, ends up in the United Arabs Emirates through an agent at between Sh40 and Sh80 per kilo.
A trained banker, Mutindi, 30, landed her first job as a customer service attendant with a commercial bank three years after graduating from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.
She was upbeat when she was posted to the bank’s branch in Kitengela, Kajiado County. Her work, which she did for two years, entailed marketing the bank and its products to clients. Meanwhile, she started farming on the side as she juggled agribusiness and banking.
“I used to leave the office early on Friday and go to the farm where I would work throughout the weekend,” she recalls. When it was no longer tenable to handle the two jobs, she resigned and went full-time into agribusiness.
DEMAND FOR FOOD
Her farming venture has expanded many folds since then. “It takes me two days working on the farm to make as much as I earned. This is what makes me believe I made the right decision.”
So what makes agribusiness tick for her? “Timing is the most important thing in agribusiness. I ensure my crops mature when supply is low to cash in.
To reduce irrigation costs, I transplant crops such as sukuma wiki at the beginning of the rainy season,” says Caroline, who studied accounting and finance, and keeps up-to-date farm records.
She adds that market trends dictate what she grows. Sometimes clients ask her to plant a particular crop.
But this does not mean that her enterprise is devoid of challenges. Her farm is sometimes invaded by hippos from River Athi as well as elephants that stray from Tsavo East National Park.
“The crops are also attacked by thrips, leading to high cost of production since one uses expensive chemicals to eliminate them,” says Caroline, who depends on a diesel-powered pump to draw water from the river to irrigate her crops, especially during dry spells.
She advises women to venture into agribusiness because demand for food is high, thus there is a ready market. “To go around the challenge of land ownership, women should consider leasing land,” she offers.
George Kamami, a horticulture and land-use expert who heads a World Food Programme funded project on promoting sustainable food systems in Makueni County, advises that budding farmers should adopt appropriate technologies, access inputs and market collectively for their ventures to be sustainable.
The use of technologies such as drip irrigation promotes efficient use of water to avoid wastage and reduce conflicts over the shared resource, says Kamami.
He adds farmers should also embrace climate-smart machines such as rippers to prepare the land.
Get it fast
- Growing okra starts with preparing the plot two weeks before the actual seeding.
- The seeds are soaked for a night before planting to make germination easy.
- Although the seeds can be planted in a nursery and the seedlings transferred to the plots, Mutindi plants the seeds directly in the field.
- They are spaced 45cm by 45cm between rows and within the rows themselves.