I visit Sotik town in Bomet County on Sunday. Its liveliness is unusual.
Many other rural towns on such a day would be dull, but not Sotik which is always filled with motorbike (boda boda) riders, traders, farmers, matatus, travellers and buyers, all who make it bubbly.
I ride on one of the bikes to Kiptapsir village to meet farmer Alice Ruto.
Ruto is among farmers in the county whose farms standout. You may call her a jack of all trades but to her, it is all about proper land use.
She keeps fish, dairy cows, poultry, rabbits, bees and grows passion fruits, all on one acre. But that is not all, she also sells tree seedlings and runs an agrovet and a bakery.
“I have been farming for more than 24 years,” says Ruto, who started with dairy cows. “I would get about 90 litres of milk from my four animals which I was delivering to the then Kenya Cooperative Creameries.”
About two years into the farming, the creameries started to reject her milk saying it was of low quality.
The losses opened her eyes, persuading her of the need to diversify her agribusiness and find a market for her milk.
After a series of training by the Kenya Dairy Board on value addition and animal feeds, Ruto started the first milk bar called Chemaluk in Sotik town.
“At the time, it did not make sense to people because everyone kept cows and there was no market for milk. But I proved them wrong,” says Ruto, who started to add value to the milk by making yoghurt and fermented milk. She still does this.
A litre of fresh milk goes for Sh60 while yoghurt fetches Sh120.
“On Sundays we ferment the milk and store it in a deep freezer. We sell without adding any flavours.”
Since she started selling the milk through the bar, she has never looked back.
“A milk processing plant buys a litre of milk at between Sh32 and Sh35. This is too low compared to what I earn from selling it myself,” says Ruto, who has four Friesian cows that give her 28 litres of milk each a day after feeding them molasses and napier grass, among other fodder.
Before she started farming, Ruto used to sell second-hand clothes and vegetables in Sotik town.
She then borrowed Sh15,000 from her chama (savings group) to start the dairy farm. Twenty four years ago an improved breed dairy cow cost Sh3,000.
The farmer also keeps 200 broilers at any time which she sells to hospitals.
“I sell the broilers to Tenwek Hospital and Litein Mission Hospital. I supply 200 birds to the hospitals a month at Sh450 each.”
“If local people give us a call, we slaughter the birds, pack and sell to them,” she adds.
She started her tree seedlings business three years ago growing eucalyptus and cypress that go for Sh20 each and indigenous varieties like mobet, rerendet, lemak and sorget, which she sells at Sh30 each.
“It is good to diversify in agribusiness because if you can’t find a market for one product, you sell the other.”
She started with 1,000 seedlings that earned her an average of Sh20,000 a year, increasing them to 3,000 as demand expanded to earn Sh60,000 last year.
She has 32 beehives, with each producing 10kg of honey after three months.
“With good weather, we get 150kg of natural honey which we sell at Sh600 a kilo in Sotik town.”
With over 100 grafted purple and yellow passion fruit plants, she is able to harvest at least 30kg which she uses to make juice and sell at Chemaluk Milk Bar for Sh40 a glass.
Last year, she ventured into tilapia fingerling business in a small pond next to her house.
“I started the pond because farmers would go for fingerlings as far as Siaya County. I feed them on pellets and so far I have sold 300 fingerlings at Sh9.”
More income comes from training she offers to farmers and agriculture students at Sh300 per visitor.
The 59-year-old takes pride in her Chemaluk Farm and Agrovet Company she registered in 2010.
The agribusiness has been the source of her livelihood and that of her six grown-up children, who help her run the family venture and she pays them a commission every month.
“Judy Chebet runs the agrovet in Sotik town that I started in 1992. Martin Rotich is in-charge of the dairy enterprise, Beatrice Chepkoech and Tyson Rotich run the food technology and bakery business. Sophia Chebet runs the agro-forestry project while the last born Stacey Chepkemoi is the overall leader of the family business,” says Ruto.
On March 12, 2007, Ruto received an award from former President Mwai Kibaki for good economic use of land.
Prof Mathews Dida, a lecturer at Maseno University’s Department of Agriculture, says mixed farming has many advantages.
“Animals and crops have a symbiotic support for each other. When you have animals, you source manure from them for your crops which cuts down costs. There is better utilisation of land in mixed farming as opposed to mono-farming.”
However, according to Prof Dida, the challenge with mixed farming is that a farmer may be unable to maximise productivity because of resource competition and divided attention.
Ruto has had her share of challenges in the different agribusinesses. She lost her four cattle when they ate poisoned feeds. Luckily, she had insured them.