From a distance the green vegetation rising to about four feet form a beautiful view in the perched farms of Kathonzweni in Makueni County.
Only after one draws nearer does he realise that the bushes on the farm are thriving cassava crops nearly ready for harvest.
In short while the leaves will begin to fall, an indication that the crop is ripe.
With changing climatic conditions making maize farming in dry Makueni County unviable, a group of farmers have taken to commercial cassava farming.
The Kiuuku and Mbuvo cassava farmers have literally gone back to the roots and started growing the traditional crop in what is now popularly known as the cassava commercial villages of Makueni.
For a long time cassava was considered a ‘poor man’s crop but not anymore, especially in the two villages where about 500 farmers are earning from the crop.
Dickson Ndaka, 67, (top) is a pioneer cassava commercial farmer who delved into the venture after facing poor maize harvests due to sporadic and unreliable rains in the area.
Cassava is drought resistant and can thrive in low rains compared to maize, beans and other crops. Makueni region receives as low rainfall as 250mm annually.
THRIVE IN LITTLE RAINFALL
Ndaka sought the advice of agricultural experts at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation at Katumani in Machakos.
“I acquired 12 bags of tubers which I planted in my two acre farm,” he says.
That was four years ago and now initially sceptical neighbours who thought Ndaka was wasting time and effort have joined him in growing of cassava.
After eight months, Ndaka would harvest three tonnes of cassava making an income of Sh96,000. He managed to pay school fees for his four children and ploughed the rest of the money back to the farm.
“That year my neighbours who thought I was being unreasonable by changing my farm to cassava did not harvest anything due to poor rains”, said Ndaka.
He says with cassava one cannot go hungry as he sells his cassava and buys maize flour. He also intercrops the cassava with green grams which also thrive with little rainfall.
The intercropping also helps reduce diseases as the two crops belong to different families.
Ndaka, who has never had a formal job, has received training from the Farm Concern, a non-governmental organisation funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to enhance food security and economic growth for peasant farmers in East and Central Africa.
He thereafter started training other farmers and persuading them to join cassava farming. Eighty-five farmers have since joined him to form the “Kiuuku Cassava Village”.
These farmers practice individually, but bring their produce together during marketing season to avoid exploitation by unscrupulous middlemen. This helps them get correct planting materials and necessary training.
Ndaka, who has become an expert in cassava growing, says early land preparation and planting will guarantee a cassava farmer good yields.
“If you plant correct crop in good time, you will not be disappointed. People call me on phone seeking to buy my cassava but I have never heard of a maize farmer being called on phone by a buyer,” he says.
Ndaka does not sell his produce locally; he sells in tonnes to wholesale buyers and millers.
“Even if you choose to sell in the local market the price of cassava does not fluctuate like other crops,” he adds. A piece goes for between Sh50 and Sh100 depending on the size.
The group is currently planning to set up a processing plant to get into value addition.