From afar, one may mistake the umbrella-like flowers in the farm in Kikuyu, Kiambu, for a different variety of sunflower.
But this is Ammi, a unique flower whose weak stem appears too delicate to carry it.
Charles Kinyanjui, the owner of the farm, walks carefully in the quarter-acre shamba to avoid stepping on the plants.
The Ammi plants defy the notion that flower farming is a preserve of the big farmers who can afford large greenhouses and expensive machinery.
“I hope to cover the whole acre with Ammi from the money I will make from my second harvest,” he says.
Also known as the Bishop’s Weed, Ammi has its origins in the Mediterranean Sea region.
Vendors use it to blend other flowers because of its distinct white and green colours, which help make a bouquet more beautiful. It is also odourless.
Kinyanjui, 26, an Information Technology (IT) professional, who runs an events advertising website Gigwapi.com, says he experimented with the flower, and it is paying off.
His friend introduced him to Ammi farming in January, and he doesn’t think he will look back because of the profitability.
“After graduating in 2012 from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology with a degree in Business and IT, I did a bit of subsistence farming but the returns were little as the market is controlled by middlemen in Nairobi.”
With a capital of Sh20,000, Kinyanjui leased a 30 by 60 foot plot in Kikuyu, and grew Ammi.
His first harvest fetched Sh50,000, and this was despite half of his plants being destroyed by heavy rains. He sells his produce to Wilmar Flowers, a company that teaches smallholder farmers how to grow flowers.
The flowers are sold in grades ABC. They are graded depending on the circumference. Grade A goes for Sh4 per stem, Grade B Sh3 and Grade C Sh2.
To get big stems, he advises one should not plant during rainy season. The more sunshine they receive, the bigger they bloom.
“But ensure before you start, you first get an agronomist to test your soil so that he can advise on which flowers can grow well,” he advises.
Most summer flowers like Ammi can tolerate different soil conditions, although they prefer moist soil with good drainage. One, however, should watch for frost bite.
“Farmers are advised not to overwater the crops since they can overgrow,” says Nelson Maina, a researcher at Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (Kari), Thika, who specialises in smallholder flower farming.
Ammi seeds are tiny. However, they are planted directly in the soil, which should be ploughed until it is fine to maximise the number of seeds that will germinate.
“Subdivide the land into one metre wide blocks separated by half a metre space and make sure you water the land 24 hours before planting to make it moist,” says Kinyanjui.
“One plants 30 grams of seeds on each block, which sprout into 150 stalks per metre square.”
The seeds germinate in seven days and grow well if the soil is mulched.
The plants are then thinned to about 30 per square metre, according to Maina.
“Apply nitrogen fertiliser at a rate of 50 grams per metre square a month after planting and, thereafter, apply foliar sprays of nitrate fertiliser every two months after planting to improve the quality of the flowers.”
After three months, the flowers should be ready for harvesting.
“The flowers are sold in grades, meaning you have to take very good care of them as they are like children and each detail counts,” says Kinyanjui.
To make sure his produce attains good grades, Kinyanjui, who has employed someone to take care of his farm, spends a minimum of one hour each day with his flowers to know their progress.
SEPARATE INTO BLOCKS
He also seeks advice from time to time from experts on how to deal with challenges like diseases.
According to the Kari official, one acre of Ammi flowers would give a farmer an average yield of 280,000 to 320,000 stems.
To achieve maximum output, the Kari researcher says farmers should separate their farm into blocks and plant the flowers at different times so that they can harvest all-year round.
“We are encouraging smallholder farmers to grow other high quality summer flowers that require a small space and minimal input like eryngium, onis, claspedia and mobidique, among others.”
Farmers don’t have to cut their maize or coffee but can grow Ammi for extra income.
“They should, however, think of a market before they venture into the business, but that shouldn’t be a problem because there are a number of flower exporting agencies that don’t have their own farms and can purchase directly from them.”