Mwihaki Njehu has been a farmer for the last six years, having started her agribusiness as a hobby soon after her retirement.
The chemist, whose farm Grace Rock sits on three acres and is located in Chunga Mali village, some 27km from Nairobi in Kiambu County, specialises in vegetable seedlings.
They include tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, sukuma wiki (collard greens) and watermelons.
“I retired from the manufacturing industry after working for 25 years and ventured into farming into 2012, investing Sh350,000,” she offers.
However, she did not begin with seedlings, but as a mixed farmer, rearing six pigs and growing crops in a greenhouse.
“I began with three greenhouses, where I planted tomatoes and coloured capsicums that I sold in the market.”
However, as she farmed, she identified a gap in the seedlings business and ventured into it.
“I was inspired to begin raising seedlings after experiencing challenges getting quality ones. I would buy from farmers and some of them would not grow well.”
Mwihaki grows her seedlings in recyclable trays using soilless media known as cocopeat in a technology known as plant plugging.
She fills the peat in pots on the trays, waters and then plants the seeds.
“The advantage with the soilless media is that it is specifically formulated for the purpose of growing commercial seedlings. I end up with seedling that are free of disease, with a fully developed root system that aid in prevention of shock during transplanting,” she says. From three greenhouses, her farm now hosts nine of the structures in which she raises seedlings.
Growing seedlings in the structures, she says, comes with several advantages.
“In a greenhouse, you can easily curb diseases because it is a controlled environment.”
She sells the seedlings mainly to farmers in Kiambu and neighbouring counties who come for them.
“I have also partnered with a local courier to deliver seedlings to customers throughout the country within 24 hours after I get an order,” says Mwihaki, who reads agriculture books and attends training to boost her knowledge in seedlings production.
TOURS AND TRAINING
A seedling goes from between Sh2 and Sh20 depending on the crop and variety.
Her agribusiness has brought her not only fortune but also fame. In 2016, she was awarded a scholarship by Goldman’s Sachs to study entrepreneurship at USIU Africa. The initiative targeted 10,000 women.
“The knowledge I got has enabled me run Grace Rock as a business, as I also give back to the community. I hold free field days for farmers in conjunction with established seed companies, farm equipment providers and other players in the agriculture field. This enables farmers learn best greenhouse practices,” says Mwihaki.
She also organises farm tours and training for agribusiness owners and farmhands.
The latter are trained to be professionals either on their farms or on her farm.
“We are certified by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service and licensed by Agricultural Food Authority. This recognition has enabled me strive to offer the best by growing hybrid seedlings,” she says, noting to start the business, one needs Sh5,000 licences and good knowledge in seedlings management.
Some of the challenges she faces include diseases like dumping off, but she says there are chemicals to curb it.
Mwihaki hopes to modernise and mechanise operations at Grace Rock and start an Agribusiness Resource Centre where farmers and agripreneurs can get real time practical information on how to run a successful agribusiness.
Charles Nyakiongora, an agro-economist with Simlaw Seeds Ltd, says to run a seedlings business, one needs skills and knowledge on selection of quality seeds and seedling propagation.
“In a greenhouse, the seeds are in a micro-climate, meaning that it is a controlled environment and should be managed well.”
He adds that soil analysis should be done before transplanting the seedlings in the field.
“In the production process, one needs to ensure that disease detection and prevention are put into consideration to avoid infection of the seeds leading to poor harvesting.”