Martin Njoroge had just stepped out of college when he realised no reasonable job was forthcoming.
Together with two other young men, he decided to venture into horticulture at his parents’ plot in Kiambu.
At the time, greenhouse farming was the craze in Kenya, with reports of farmers making astronomical profits.
Njoroge, a commerce graduate, and his mates, applied for a loan from a youth fund to start the business.
“We used close to Sh200,000 to acquire the 8x8m greenhouse, drip irrigation kits and tomato seeds,” Njoroge, who ventured into horticulture in 2016, says.
As soon as the structure was installed, the three young men rolled up their sleeves to work.
“We began by planting tomatoes before rotating them with capsicums. Unfortunately, the polythene paper got torn at the top,” he says.
With the cover destroyed, whiteflies, moths and other pests found their way into the greenhouse and destroyed the crops.
The flies became a menace and the tomato fruits began rotting.
The three friends repaired the damaged roof but the pests remained in the greenhouse and even multiplied.
“We tried all kinds of pesticides and fly traps in vain. The cost of managing the greenhouse and attempting to fight the pests was great so we abandoned the business,” the farmer says.
The three men’s tragic experience with greenhouses is not different from Rodgers Kirwa’s, a social media agribusiness farmer in Nandi County.
The Egerton University graduate says his first foray into greenhouses last year was a failure.
Unlike Njoroge, who made some cash in the first season, Kirwa’s failed from the start.
He had heard of people making good returns from greenhouse farming and took the decision to try his luck. He bought polythene at Sh70,000.
Unfortunately, the paper lacked anti-fogging properties.
During the day when it was warm, the hot air inside the greenhouse rose to form mist, which sometimes condensed on the films and dropped on the plants, damaging them and giving rise to diseases.
This is common in structures that do not have anti-fogging properties or have poor ventilation.
“My tomatoes were destroyed. I did not get a single cent from my investment,” Kirwa says.
Lucas Mutua, another young farmer from Kamulu on the outskirts of Nairobi, recalls how his neighbour bought seven greenhouses about two years ago.
Only two are functional at the moment.
“The rest are torn,” Mutua tells Seeds of Gold.
There are countless undocumented accounts from farmers who have burnt their fingers after investing in defective greenhouses.
The losses could be as a result of buying cheap and low greenhouses.
Many do not know what features to look out for when going for greenhouses or how to maintain them.
Kirwa, who encourages farming through the hashtag #agribusinesstalk254 every Thursday, says he had to approach a reputable dealer for a greenhouse.
He now grows tomatoes and other horticultural crops on a quarter-acre.
He adds that farmers encounter many challenges with greenhouse technology, leading to losses.
“I have come across individuals whose greenhouses were blown away by the wind. This is because the metallic frames anchoring the structure were weak. The polythene cover may be loosely mounted and thus begins holding rain water. It may sag, thus wearing out fast,” he says.
A greenhouse system costs between Sh150,000 and Sh200,000.
Fresh Produce Exporters Association chief executive Hosea Machuki blames county governments for failing to provide extension services to smallholder farmers.
“Agriculture is a devolved function but devolved units do not create awareness or train farmers on innovations, leading to huge losses,” Machuki says.
Greenhouse technology the world over has been hailed for allowing crops to grow without the stress from pests, diseases and extreme weather, leading to high quality fresh produce.
But low quality of polythene bags, improper installation and poor management have brought losses to farmers.
Taita Ngetich, director of Nairobi-based Illuminum Greenhouses Kenya, says the polythene should be ultra-violet-treated and with a thickness of 200 microns
“The greenhouse should have an entry porch and net to keep pests away. Proper ventilation is necessary,” he says.
Such ventilation removes moisture and mist from the greenhouse by allowing fresh air in.
He says there should be site assessment before one constructs a greenhouse.
One should know the intensity of the wind, the topography, source of water and its availability.
The drip kits are susceptible to clogging. Such a gadget should have a filter.
The polythene comes in different thickness so farmers need to be keen when buying greenhouses.