A drive through Ngondini village on the fringes of Kitui town leaves many surprised by the lush green farmlands.
For years, such a spectacle has been rear in the dry Ukambani region, but it is now the norm, thanks to green grams (ndengu).
The crop has become the face of resilience of the arid region, as it puts money in many farmers’ pockets.
John Mutie and his wife Teresia are on their green grams farm when we visit.
The Muties are among some 314,000 farmers growing the crop across Ukambani counties of Machakos, Makueni and Kitui.
The farmers have reduced acreage of crops like maize and cow peas, and embraced the legume and fodder, another cash-cow in the region. The Muties are planting the legume on five acres.
“We have been planting cow peas (ndakithi) and maize for years but this time we have reduced the acreage and focused on green grams because we have seen the crop is doing well in Kitui and there is ready market,” said Mutie, a former clerk with a Kitui-based law firm.
Harvesting of green grams is currently ongoing across the counties and it is expected to peak next week with a majority of farmers waiting for a bumper harvest.
Mutie expects to harvest some 4,000kg of the legume, which will earn him about Sh400,000 at a price of Sh100 a kilo promised by the county government and Kenya Red Cross (KRC).
“I plan to use the money to finish my house and boost my wife’s business,” he says.
Farmers cite early maturity, low water demand and ready market as the reason for embracing the crop.
To grow the crop, one starts by preparing the land using an oxen drawn plough or one drawn by a tractor.
Then one should plant certified seeds in furrows; two seeds spaced at 10cm between plants and 60cm between rows.
“An acre takes 4kg of seeds. The seeds should be planted shortly before rains. Once they germinate and flourish, weeding should be done using hoes,” offers Mutie, noting spraying the crop with pesticides is also done around this time.
HIGH VALUE DROUGHT RESISTANT CROP
The crop takes three months to mature and harvesting involves removing the pods manually.
“After harvesting the pods, they are dried, threshed, winnowed and packed in bags. Threshing should be done lightly to avoid breaking the seeds,” says Teresiah, noting it can also be done using a special machine that also winnows.
However, while some farmers like Mutie are growing the crop for sale for consumption, others like Kisangai Mumo, based in the semi-arid Kyumani village in Makueni County, have been contracted by Kenya Seed Company for seed production.
This season, Mumo increased the acreage under the crop to 120 and is expecting to rake in up to Sh5 million in sales.
“We have been intercropping ndengu with maize and other crops since 2010 but this season we did a monoculture of the crop and the result has been a better yield,” said Mumo, a one-time politician and a retired army general.
Normally, the company invites those interested in propagating the seeds to enlist with them, says Richard Karinde, an officer with the organisation.
One must, however, meet the following conditions: own a sizeable land, which should be in an area with a warm climate suitable for growing the crop.
Farmer then signs a contract with the company, which spells among other conditions the need for the farmer not to mix the crop with others
“The shamba should be surrounded by a 300-metre wide isolation ring that ensures that the crop is not affected by others during pollination,” he says, adding one should be able to finance and manage the farm.
The seed firm buys a kilo of the crop at Sh120, according to Karinde.
The shift towards the growing of green grams is the outcome of years of advocacy from government and development agencies on the need for farmers in arid areas to grow highly valued drought resistant crops.
In Kitui, the county government has partnered with KRC to mainstream green grams farming in a project called ‘Ndengu Revolution’.
The project is expected to offer farmers up to Sh3 billion by the end of the harvesting season.
SELLING IN BULK THOUGH COOPERATIVES
“With this plan, the county government estimates that each household planting 2kg of ndengu would harvest 90kg of the commodity each going at a minimum of Sh100. This means each household would earn Sh18,000. With some 200,000 households planting ndengu, this will generate some Sh3.6 billion in sales,” says Emmanuel Kisangau, the Agriculture Executive.
‘Ndengu Revolution’ is also meant to rid the green grams value chain of unscrupulous middlemen who choke farmers by acquiring the produce at low prices.
This can be achieved especially if the farmers sell their produce collectively through cooperative societies to cut off brokers, according to KRC.
KRC secretary-general Abass Gulet says the agency has set aside Sh500 million to buy the produce to shield farmers from exploitation by middlemen. The organisation also supplied seeds for free.
Gulet says demand for Kenyan green grams in Asian countries including India, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan is inexhaustible and that farmers should strive to produce more.
However, it is not all rosy. This season, rains ceased earlier than expected affecting production of crops in some regions. Farmers also have to contend with blight and a variety of pests.
Johnson Gachuhi, who is working with green grams farmers in Makueni and Tharaka Nithi counties, says its costs approximately Sh50 to produce a kilo of green grams.
“The biggest cost results from processing the crop,” says Gachuhi, the proprietor of Mwailu Enterprises, an aggregator and processor of pulses.
Ndengu thrives in warm climate, according to Kisangau, “Crops such as maize do not do well in most places in Ukambani because the rains often fail before the crops mature. Another advantage of ndengu is that the plant is nitrogen fixing and this ensures that soils are always fertile,” he says, adding selling in bulk through cooperative societies ensures that the buyer enjoys economies of scale.
– Additional reporting by Kitavi Mutua.
Costs to be incurred by farmer per acre
- Seeds 4kg for acre = Sh1,000
- Land preparation = 2000
- Planting = Sh1,500
- Spraying pesticides = Sh3,000
- Weeding = Sh3,000
- Harvesting = Sh6,000
- Threshing per bag = Sh1,000
Each acre offers 4 90kg bags. With a kilo going for Sh100, one ends up with an average of Sh36,000.