The road to Marimanti in Tharaka-Nithi County is rough, with drivers having to cautiously navigate through boulders and tree roots, some standing in the middle of the way.
As one battles with the bad roads, they also have to content with high temperatures currently soaring to 400C.
Acacia, baobab and Calotropis procera fruits are the main plants flourishing in many parts of the semi-arid region.
However, despite being dry, the region is rich, playing hosts to over 200 farmers growing mainly sorghum and green grams and making a fortune out of it.
Peter Mutegi, 41, a farmer in Giakuri village, Nkondi ward, is among those who have managed to beat the dry weather to earn big from the soil by growing sorghum, millet and green grams.
“I farm on 232 acres where I grow the crops for East African Breweries Ltd and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation respectively,” he says.
Nine years ago, Mutegi owned a two-acre piece of land, which was an inheritance from his father where he struggled to grow maize and get market for his produce.
His life, however, turned around in 2013 after being trained by an NGO on various agronomic practices that can work in the area that receives unreliable rainfall.
“I was trained on conservation agriculture and I was among the first few farmers to be contracted by East African Breweries Limited in 2013 to grow sorghum,” he says.
Luck struck again in 2015 when Mutegi got a contract from Karlo to become a green grams seed producer, investing Sh65,000. He was supplied with improved seeds by Kalro — Embu and trained on how to multiply seeds while following the recommended agricultural practices.
Today, his farm is a lush green spectacle in the dry land, as it hosts sorghum occupying 45 acres, green grams 11, millet 120 and maize the rest, all that he farms under conservation agriculture.
“I was trained on how to use conservation farming methods that increase water retention while inhibiting any weed growth,” Mutegi, whose farm is fully mechanised, explains.
Normally, he uses a planter to make holes in the soil where he places the seeds as the machine also applies fertiliser.
“I plant early, weeks before the start of the rains to maximise on the rainfall period.”
The planter does the work at an average of 30-40 acres an hour saving him time and costs. An acre requires 4kg of green grams with a kilo going for Sh250. Similarly, an acre needs a kilo of sorghum seeds with each going for Sh175.
To boost his production, Mutegi maintains a permanent soil cover, using mulching aided by crop left overs, which ensure the soil is moist.
“I alternate sorghum that takes 60 days to mature with green grams that is usually ready in 45 days. Sometimes I even plant the entire 232 acres green grams depending on the market. Green grams are nitrogen-fixing and they help in upholding soil vigour while minimising pests and diseases,” he says.
During harvest, Mutegi picks only the pods in green grams and the seed heads in sorghum and millet while the crop residue is left to act as soil cover.
“I use combine harvesters that reap, thresh and winnow — all which is a single process. From an acre of green grams, I harvest 12 90kg bags which I sell at Sh100 per kilo to Karlo-Embu,” he offers.
For sorghum, I harvest 20 — 25 bags per acre and each kilo EABL buys at Sh37, reaping handsomely from the two crops.
“I normally transport the sorghum to a warehouse in Industrial Area in Nairobi, where one is supposed to deliver,” he offers, adding that sometimes the brewer also buys millet, but his main market for the tiny grain is Karlo-Katumani and a private company.
Mutegi also buys from other farmers’ their produce through his company Tegemeo Cereals Enterprises Limited.
“The farmers bring to me their produce for sale and even storage, helping me to deliver to buyers in bulk. So far, I have six aggregation points in Tharaka South and Tharaka North and I employ over 50 people,” he says.
Dr Susan Wanderi of Kalro-Embu says green grams seeds planted by contracted farmers like Mutegi are supplied by the government under the Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project (UTaNRMP).
“To ensure quality in the harvested seeds, farmers receive support on land preparation and general crop husbandry from Karlo centre in Embu. Further, the crop has to be inspected twice within the season by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service before the harvested seeds can be declared certified for distribution in the market.”
“The contracted farmers are selected through a rigorous criteria driven by the department of agriculture at the sub-county and ward levels. This include farm size to cater for isolation distances between crops,” adds Dr Wanderi.
After selection, the farmers are trained on quality seed production, and seed systems among other key areas, which prepare them for producing certified seeds for the market.
Dr Wanderi notes that there’s a shortage of certified seed producers in Kenya and encourages the youth to take advantage of the gap.
Mutegi cites thrips and aphids as pests that affect both green grams and sorghum. He isolates diseases like blight, powdery mildew and leaf spot as those that attack the crops, though the plants are largely resilient.
To farm an acre, Mutegi says it costs him Sh15,000, therefore, for 232 acres, the farmer usually spends up to 3.5 million.
“Sometimes I don’t have the money but most banks are not willing to offer such an amount of loan because they consider the venture high risk. Some ask for collateral but when I provide title deed, the financial institutions claim that the land in Tharaka has no value because it is a dry region,” he laments.
His other challenge arises from post-harvest handling of the grains due to the tough terrain and storage facilities.