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Truth, lies I’ve learnt about farming

Saturday June 22 2019

Caleb Karuga, the founder of Wendy Farm, based in Kikuyu, Kiambu County.

Caleb Karuga, the founder of Wendy Farm, based in Kikuyu, Kiambu County. He advises that to succeed in farming, one must understand the market well, know the consuming culture, the agro-ecological factors and have competitive advantage. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG 

IRENE MUGO
By IRENE MUGO
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Six years ago, Caleb Karuga lost his job as a TV reporter and plunged into full-time farming.

The transition was not hard for him since three years earlier, he had started farming on the side, mainly keeping Kienyeji chickens.

Today, Karuga is the poster boy of success in agribusiness among the youth. He keeps over 3,000 indigenous chickens, grows traditional vegetables on several acres, keeps cows and tops up his income with agribusiness consultancy.

Seeds of Gold caught up with the founder of Wendy Farm, based in Kikuyu, Kiambu County, who shared what he has learnt about farming in the decade he has been in agribusiness.

“Yes, farming pays handsomely, but whoever tells you that you will make millions is a liar,” Karuga, 37, says emphatically.

According to him, to succeed in farming, one must understand the market well, know the consuming culture, the agro-ecological factors and have competitive advantage.

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“But even after knowing all these, farming is all hard work and being able to positively handle losses because things will go wrong — sometimes,” says Karuga, who broke even after three years of full-time farming.

His typical day starts at 5am. “I first pray and read random materials for inspiration and then remotely monitor my farm on the phone. I have placed CCTV cameras around to keep me abreast with what is happening. They also help curb employee theft because this is how many farmers make losses.”

Sometimes he also frequently travels to Kirinyaga and Nanyuki where he has leased others farms. “But I spend most of my time on other farmers’ farms training them.” He says he is much wiser now.

When he started, he bought into the hype of keeping rabbits, quails and dairy goats. “I believed that what had worked for my friend would work for me. I invested in rabbits to sell their urine, seven dairy goats to sell milk at Sh250 a litre and quails, but there was no ready market for all these things,” he says.

From his experience, “We are not a quail eating nation; it’s not in our culture but since I was told it had many returns, I bought into the hype and lost money.”

SHUN VENTURING IN FARMING WITH SOLE PURPOSE OF MAKING MONEY

Karuga does not own the land he farms on, but leases them, a model he says keeps his costs lower. “As a young farmer, I don’t have Sh4 million to buy, for instance, an acre of land in the rural areas, but I can lease. It cuts costs and also saves one the acquisition headache. Young people getting into agriculture should know it is a risky venture. They should take calculative risks. You don’t need to rush to own land.”

But when leasing, one should ensure they have a watertight agreement with the land owner.

“I was once chased from a farm that I had leased in Mombasa without proper documents yet I had started harvesting my terere (amaranth).” The documents one should get from a lessor are a copy of the title deed and agreement drafted by a lawyer, he offers.

“One should ensure that the lease captures the interests of both parties and should detail the kind of activities one wishes to do on the farm.”

His advice is that one should not venture into farming with the sole purpose of making money lest they get frustrated.

“It is not all rosy. A vaccination regimen that did not go well wiped out my 513 chickens one time. It was not an easy task to bounce back because there was the constant fear of losing again. Money should not be the driving force for an agribusiness but the need to solve a problem.”

Karuga harvests vegetables in one of his farms (left) and explains a point in his poultry venture (right).

Karuga harvests vegetables in one of his farms (left) and explains a point in his poultry venture (right). According to him, farmers should try and deal with buyers directly to avoid exploitation by middleman. PHOTOS | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG

To cope with losses, he advises one should understand his mistakes and correct them to ensure it makes business sense when they get back on their feet.

Karuga has leased three acres in Nanyuki and, with various partners, another 25 acres in Kirinyaga. He is also exploring Malindi to plant watermelons and Busia to plant ground nuts.

In Laikipia, he has gone into goats with the aim of selling the milk and meat while in Kirinyaga, bananas, dairy cows, poultry, dairy goats, bees and traditional vegetables dot the farm.

According to him, farmers should try and deal with buyers directly to avoid exploitation by middleman.

“Brokers have an advantage over farmers because they have knowledge of the market. This has led to creation of a cartel by the middlemen to exploit producers.”

He relies on Twitter and Facebook to sell his produce and meet clients.

“I also sell my products through referrals and trainings that I conduct, which enables me get better prices.”

From his experience, he notes that what derails most young farmers from breaking even is chest-thumping and overlooking the basics in farming and marketing their produce.

THEY NEED ANCHORING AND DISCIPLINE

“Young farmers want to distribute their produce in big companies and supermarkets rather than focusing on the small-scale traders,” he says, adding that his vegetable clients are mama mbogas with stalls on the street.

According to him, women are the best farm workers because they work for a purpose, which is feeding their family and they balance their wages while men work to feed themselves.

He has employed six workers and seven casuals on all his farms and urges farmers to be actively present on the farm.

“To ensure they work efficiently; you must help them do the work too. That way you can easily pick out a lazy work. As a farmer, I hire character and train for skills.”

The traditional vegetables, in particular African Night Shade (managu), is his cash cow.

“Traditional vegetable are on high demand and that is a niche that has not been satiated. Though the prices keep fluctuating depending on the season, reward is good,” he says, adding a kilo of managu at farm gate price goes for from Sh15 to Sh40.

Karuga lost his job while at the peak of his career but he cautions young people against quitting employment to farm unless they have been doing it on the side and the business is on an upward trajectory.

“Many young people want to be their own bosses but they need anchoring and discipline. Do not quit because you have problems with your boss or hate authority unless your hustle is moving upwards.”

His only regret is that he waited until he was fired before he went into full-time farming. Having acquired vast hands-on farm experience, he uses social media to offer farming tips to young farmers under the hashtag #UkulimasioUshamba.

“There are numerous opportunities in agribusiness; not everyone should soil their hands. There us transport, logistics, insurance, value addition and so on, just identify the gap.”

Karuga trains farmers who visit his farm at Sh2,500 each and charges Sh5,000 when he visits their farms.

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Quick read

What government should do

He says over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture has derailed the country from achieving food security.

He, however, notes agricultural productivity will not improve through mechanisation or irrigation of huge chunks of land but empowering farmers with small portions of land with the focus on improving yields at the same cost.

He says taxing the small-scale farmers through rise in fertilisers and pesticides tax will reduce yields.

“What the government should do is invest in research and development rather than taxing farm inputs,” he says.