He peers into a microscope with the keenness of a botanist as he studies a specimen of leaves that have wilted.
John Mutisya, an agricultural officer, then asks the farmer a few questions before informing him he would have to do further tests on the specimen in a laboratory to identify the disease.
The setting is in Machakos at Iluvya shopping centre. Mutisya and two of his colleagues are here to attend to tens of crop farmers from the region in a forum dubbed plant clinic.
Seated under a huge yellow umbrella, the three ‘plant doctors’ are dressed in green overcoats and armed with microscopes, laptops, magnifying lens, penknives (to dissect plant samples) and other gadgets that help in diagnosing pests and diseases.
As in a typical human clinic environment, farmers wait patiently for their turn for consultations.
In the meantime, one ‘plant doctor’ offers them tips on different farming and water harvesting techniques, good agricultural practices and conservation agriculture, among other lessons.
Patrick Kitili is among tens of farmers gathered at the centre waiting for his turn. In his right hand are several plant samples.
After about five minutes, he walks to Mutisya’s desk. Kitili presents a bean plant infested with pests, which are later diagnosed as aphids. He is advised on the pesticides to use to curb the pests.
“We encourage farmers to bring samples of plants that look unhealthy so that we can diagnose the diseases and identify pests before telling them what pesticides to use to remedy the situation,” says Mutisya, who is an agricultural extension officer with Katoloni CBO that runs the clinics.
The organisation brings together 320 farmers’ groups from Machakos County and its environs.
The mobile plant clinics are held every Thursday in different regions in the county.
“We move from one market place or location to the next. This helps to curb spread of diseases from one region to another as farmers don’t have to travel long distances with affected plants.”
The ‘plant doctors’ normally forward samples that they are unable to identify the diseases to Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) or Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) for further analysis.
The plant clinic service is a common practice in the developed world. Agriculturalists reckon the concept that was first introduced in Kenya in 2012 is a panacea to dwindling extension services.
The project is implemented by several organisations that include Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (Cabi), Kephis, Kalro, the University of Nairobi, the Pest Control Products Board, among others in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture.
Cabi, which facilitates the entire process under the Plantwise initiative, normally identifies agricultural extension officers from the ministry and trains them to be ‘plant doctors’.
Training is on diagnosis of plant health problems, running of plant clinics, management of diseases and development of extension services materials.
“The officers also access agricultural information on farming practices, pests and diseases from a database through their phones,” said Willis Ochilo, the Content Development Assistant with Plantwise Knowledge Bank.
Through the plant clinics, Mutisya says they have been able to manage maize smut disease, which was a huge problem in Machakos County.
“If my maize is affected by the disease, I now know that I should uproot and burn it, but not feed animals,” says Kitili.
The major reason why the disease was stubborn in the region, according to Mutisya, is because most farmers fed their animals on infested maize stocks, and later used cow dung from the same animals as manure.
“We have taught farmers that making manure from such cow dung reintroduces the disease on the farm,” says the extension officer.
Raphael Mutie and Jacinta Mueke, who were at the plant clinic, say through the forums, they learned how to manage the lethal tomato leaf miner (Tuta absoluta).
“My tomatoes were affected by the disease last season. I learnt that I should not plant again tomatoes but rotate with beans or onions,” the mother of five from Iluvya village says.
James Wanjohi of the Department of Extension and Training in the Ministry of Agriculture, who also doubles as the Plantwise National Coordinator, says the clinics have helped improve agricultural extension service delivery by reaching more farmers with plant health information and services.
“Plant clinics are another approach of carrying out extension services.
“The ministry is in the process of introducing the concept through county governments for sustainability.”