She walks along the neatly lined banana stems, prunes a leaf here, uproots a weed there and examines a bunch of bananas cut and left on the farm.
Falaciah Kinyua then picks a call on her mobile phone to answer an inquiry about the next Mother’s Union meeting. She cuts an image of a successful person living in a luxury of sorts.
But Falaciah is an ordinary woman living as a small-scale farmer in Kirinyaga. She is currently basking in glory after she was decorated on Wednesday by President Uhuru Kenyatta as Farmer NO. 1, women category, at the ongoing Nairobi International Trade Fair.
Falaciah shook hands with the President after topping the National Farmers Competition Award Scheme.
The 52-year-old mother of three grown-up sons got into farming after being retrenched by the Ministry of Health in 2000, where she had been employed as a field health worker since 1980.
In the struggle to survive with three school-going children and at the same time change from being employed to self–employment, farming featured in her mind as an option “after four good years of agonising confusion”.
She is happy that she has received recognition from the highest office in the land.
“I could not believe that it was the president who was telling me congratulations. That has stuck in my mind since then.”
Initially, her farming enterprise on five acres in Mukinduri, Kirinyaga County comprised of 400 coffee trees, three cows, a number of goats and chicken.
She attended farmers’ seminars which saw her improve the cattle by introducing Friesian breeds, then dairy goats and Kienyeji chicken.
“Neighbours were amazed at the quality, health and production of my animals and crops,” she recalls.
On seeing their eagerness to learn, she started engaging them on crop husbandry and animal health.
Without knowing her positive influence on local community, she was noticed by the Ministry of Agriculture officials.
An opportunity arose in 2008 when the Kenya National Farmers Federation with their international partners came looking for farms to set up demonstration plots in Meru, Embu, Murang’a and Kirinyaga.
Among other considerations, they wanted to work with individuals who were already role models and Falaciah was selected.
“At the time there were only 200 banana stems on our farm,” she says, adding that the ministry was keen to promote tissue culture bananas.
They gave her manure and seedlings to set up a demo farm, which currently has 1,000 banana stems and it is largely on the basis of this venture that she received the award.
Other than bananas, upcoming and experienced farmers visit the farm to learn about organic farming, crop rotation, furrowing, mixed farming and intercropping, record keeping, networking, diseases and pest control.
The Ministry of Agriculture and research institutes take their trainees to the farm.
Over 300 trainers, researchers and farmers have visited the farm since 2011 as attested by her visitor’s book, which is signed by local and international media personnel, teachers and students of agriculture.
Sometimes she hosts 50 visitors at a go.
The farm is also a “testing ground for different methods of farming”.
Currently, bagging, a method where a banana fruit is enclosed in a specially made paper bag to keep away diseases and pests and ensure the product remains clean without breach marks of scorching sun, is being tested on the farm.
Another expert is trying to find out how frequent digging drains soils of essential minerals contrary to popular opinion that digging improves soils.
Along with neighbours, they learnt another thing. The potential for bananas had remained hidden from the local people who despite working hard still sank deeper into poverty while brokers laughed all the way to the bank.
“We ganged up and kept the prices as low as Sh50 per bunch,” she recounts. Falaciah led them to form Karinga Banana Growers Association through which they sell their harvest directly, bypassing the brokers.
Instead of selling per bunch as the brokers wanted, they started selling in kilograms, which fetches better prices.
A kilo goes for Sh15 and a bunch of tissue culture banana can weigh 40kg. About 80 per cent of the families in Kirinyaga own 70 banana stems due to land demarcation, she says.
Karinga and other groups are helping the families to earn as much as tea or coffee farmers.
SPACE FOR STORAGE
Falaciah chairs Karinga group which has over 200 farmers. With her husband Geoffrey, an employee of the Kutus sub county government, they provide the group with space for storage of bananas before sale.
Paul Njiraini, a member of the group says: “The bananas that we sold for Sh70 to the broker go for Sh120 now when we sell collectively.”
Adds Penina Muriuki, another member: “We worked, others harvested but since we formed the group we work and earn.”
The group creates awareness on banana thrips, which make leaves look as if ash has been splashed on them; Panama wilt and the Yellow Sigatoke, which dries leaves.
While these are emerging challenges in Kirinyaga, the area with red well-drained soils suited for bananas, cigar end rot disease is a major threat the group must address.
According to Falaciah who is also an official of the countrywide Banana Growers Association, the next most important step for banana farmers is to move into value addition where they can sell bananas in powder form to fetch higher prices in the local and international markets.