Some six kilometres off the Maili Kumi-Solai Road in Nakuru County, one finds Aro Fresh Herbs Farm.
Ruth Wanyoro, one of the owners of the 25-acre establishment, is checking on their basil crop when we arrive.
“I have an urgent order for basil. I need to estimate the quantity I can harvest from this farm then know how much I should outsource,” she says after exchanging pleasantries.
The 34-year-old and her two partners grow a variety of herbs for export, but basil is their major crop because it is in high demand.
“Basil always takes the lion’s share of our herbs export package, averaging 37 per cent, followed by chives at 19 per cent while rosemary and mint come third and fourth at 10 per cent and 9 per cent respectively. The rest are herbs such as dill and thyme.”
On the farm are 16 greenhouses, with the biggest measuring 45 by 8 metres and the smallest 15 by 8 metres.
The trio grow the herbs mainly for export, alongside horticultural crops such as cabbages, beetroot and carrots for the local market. The crops are farmed outdoor and most of the herbs indoors.
Mint and coriander are among the herbs for export farmed outdoor. Ruth says her interest in herbs started when she was working as a horticulturalist on a flower farm in Naivasha in 2011.
“My boss called me after a trip from Israel and intimated that there was a basil market that was opening up. He told me to research on how basil farming is done,” says Ruth, adding, “There was absolutely no one to consult, and I had to spend a lot of time doing the research online.”
She later grew the crop, and the firm exported, only for the produce to be rejected. And this happened the next four times, with the buyer saying the crop had been mishandled.
As a team leader, Ruth and her colleagues researched further on the best way to grow basil as well as other herbs.
“The produce was accepted on the sixth attempt,” she offers. She quit the company in 2018 and joined a bigger firm, which specialises in herbs for export, as an out-grower manager.
“I dealt with 500-600 farmers and most of them had started from scratch and are now well established.”
It was while working at that company that she met her two partners, one a foreigner who helps with finding market abroad and the second, a local investor who owns the land.
The three agreed to farm the herbs in Bahati for export in a joint venture that saw them contribute different amounts of cash for capital, with Ruth banking on her knowledge to farm the crops.
They started farming in May after agreeing on various components of the business, with the investors ploughing in Sh8m, which was spent on greenhouses, drip irrigation, land leasing and land preparations, among other expenses.
To grow basil for export, one first buys certified seeds, which are then propagated in seedling trays for three weeks before being transplanted in greenhouses.
“We farm the crop in greenhouses because it attracts a lot of pests like caterpillars, whiteflies and thrips. Basil thrives in a warm environment such as a greenhouse.”
From a half-acre of mint, Ruth harvests 800kg and sells a kilo at 3.4 Euros (Sh384).
A greenhouse measuring 30 by 8 metres offers 100-150kg of basil, which sells at 3.4 Euros (Sh384) a kilo. A crop of basil is harvested once a week for eight weeks.
On the other hand, a quarter-acre of coriander produces about 400kg, which sells at 3.2 Euros (Sh361). “Our major markets are the Netherlands, UK, Germany and Israel.” Ruth says farmers in the herbs business can earn much more if they work as a group.
AGREE ON HOW TO FARM
At one time she recalls trying to make farmers come together and connect the group of 35 to a client at a favourable price.
“But some farmers went direct to the client behind our backs and offered their produce at half the agreed price, spoiling the deal.”
Their challenges include getting packaging material as manufacturers may delay in delivery.
“It, thus, becomes difficult to get an alternative to plastic bags, which have since been banned by the National Environment Management Authority. The current weather has also made it challenging to harvest, especially the outdoor crops. You harvest a wet crop, yet you cannot send it to the clients in the same condition,” says Ruth.
Ruth explains that to go into a joint venture, all parties must understand the importance of the business and the impact.
“They must also understand the risks associated with the venture. Herbs for example are sometimes rejected by clients. Besides, there are high and low seasons.”
The parties must also work on a foundation of trust, she adds.
Jeff Kahuho, a senior programmes officer at Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Kenya, says young persons can partner with older people including their own parents, in joint ventures to get into farming.
“The old have the land and the capital and the youth the expertise. The two can agree on how to farm and share profits or losses but everything must be put in writing and captured in the business plan.”
Get it fast
Dos and don’ts for export crops
To grow crops for export, one needs an export licence from the Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD), Global GAP certification and company registration among others.
To control pests on the export crop, one should use traps to curb pests before they attack the crop.
If indoors, all doors must be kept closed and ensure no holes on the walls of greenhouses so that pests do not enter.
Application of Integrated Pests Management (IPM) methods must be applied.
If need be, only use the chemicals allowed by your clients.